Waging the Peace: Bernard Herrmann and The Day the Earth Stood Still

October 1, 2009

The movie that gave us the phrase, “Klaatu! Barada! Nikto!” is not only an important science-fiction film, but also arguably one of the most significant films of the 1950s. Furthermore, it elevated the emerging genre of cinematic science-fiction above “junk or kiddy fare”1 and addressed more mature themes than one would normally encounter at a Saturday matinee. Producer Julian Blaustein, while in the early stages of creating The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), recalled reading about a government-led “Peace Offensive.” To him, the plan seemed to be contradictory: How could peace be obtained through a military offensive? The 1950s were dominated by such conflicting ideologies. U.S. foreign policy fought for freedom across the globe in the hopes of halting the spread of Communism. Conversely, in battling domestic Communism, liberties were sacrificed, loyalties called into question, and promising careers extinguished. The portrayal of the suburban lifestyle as the ideal place to raise a family lured many people from the cities to increased security in the suburbs. However, the homogeneity of race and social class, the repressive expectations of gender roles, and the cultural isolation left many suburbanites still searching for domestic utopia. When these social and political dualities converged, the results reflected what are often cited as side effects of U.S. foreign and domestic policy during the 1950s: fear, paranoia, and alienation. Hollywood experienced an equally transitional era in its history following World War II. The competition with television, destabilization of the studio system, and the specter of House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) investigations in 1947 and 1951 produced a sense of negativity and skepticism throughout the film industry. Consequently, several filmmakers produced movies that reexamined important social issues and confronted the aforementioned conflicting ideologies. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was such a film that became renowned for both its critical success as well as its controversial socio-political message.

As the spaceship lands, the first instinct of humans is to panic and act irrationally. Director Robert Wise captures this in the man running down the street screaming, “They’re here! They’ve landed on the Mall!”2 One does not know specifically who “they” are, let alone what “their” intentions might be. Because of this frightening event, there are no certainties, nly ambiguities. The composer for the film, Bernard Herrmann, echoes this feeling through virtual harmonic stasis in “Danger” (Example 1).

Example 1.  The Day the Earth Stood Still, "Danger," mm. 1-8.3

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Through the use of chromaticism, Herrmann disrupts any sense of a home key. The vibraphones begin and end on an F-sharp major chord, but there is no movement away from nor strong pull towards that chord. The trombones play a two-measure repeated chromatic pattern in which the chord on beat two of the first two-measure phrase occurs on beat one of the subsequent two-measure phrase. This pattern continues throughout the cue.

Not only is the chromaticism effective, but the way Herrmann varies the same material in each measure underlines the sense of unpredictability in the face of this “invader.” To complete the effect, Herrmann employs chromatic tritone movement in the bass instruments. This tritone bass progression reinforces in the listener’s ear a sense of nervousness, which enhances the fear felt by the individuals in the film. Jay Rahn points out that the tritone is the only interval in which the chromatic size does not identify a specific diatonic size. For instance, ten semitones is a seventh, four semitones is a third, and eight semitones is a sixth. However, a tritone can be either an augmented fourth or a diminished fifth, but they are both six semitones. Rahn calls this phenomenon an “ambiguity.”4 It is this sort of tonal and intervallic ambiguity that makes the tritone so effective in helping to comment upon dramatic uncertainty.

Finally, the moment comes when the ramp to the ship extends and the audience can finally see what fate awaits them. As expected, humans do not exactly roll out the red carpet. All present seem to be frozen in anticipation. To further suggest this state of suspended animation, Herrmann composed an equally static cue. As if to evoke a brilliant shaft of light, a high D-natural sounds in the theremin, organs, vibraphones, and electric violin (Example 2). Answering this crystalline unison in the Hammond organs and muted trumpets is an A-flat major chord in second inversion. By doing this, Herrmann reinforces the clash between D-natural and E-flat (displayed throughout the score) witnessed here in the root movement of this opening. The figure is resolved on a D-natural in the bass of the second theremin, electric cello and bass, and studio organ. Herrmann reinforces the dissonant tension between the D-natural sonority and the A-flat major chord and creates aural unease, which enhances the sense of nervous anticipation in the drama.

Example 2. The Day the Earth Stood Still, “Klaatu,” mm. 1-4.

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This “resolution” provides little sense of security, as the cue, in a largo tempo, seems to stretch time. Furthermore, the repetition of the first two measures throughout the cue heightens the suspense with each presentation. Within the opening motive of this excerpt, Herrmann seems to anticipate the message that Klaatu has for earth’s peoples. The brightness of the D-natural suggests the vast potential of Klaatu’s plea for peace. Klaatu’s presence on earth and his warning conflict with our fear-based aggressive tendencies and narrow view of the universe. This dramatic friction is enhanced aurally in the clash between D-natural and E-flat and the tritone between D-natural and A-flat. The D-natural in the bass echoes its octave equivalent in the soprano but because of its low scoring in the electric cello, electric bass, and studio organ, bears an ominous quality. This latter D-natural perhaps speaks to the consequences for those who will not heed Klaatu’s words later in the film.

Before those surrounding the alien vessel can comprehend what has happened to Klaatu, a large robot exits the ship. Citizens and military recoil in fear at the sight of the great metallic figure. The unison blast in the organs, tubas, pianos, and the ornamented figure in the bass drum of “Gort,” provides a striking contrast in range and dynamics with the softer, more ethereal sound of the theremin at the end of “Klaatu” (Ex. 3). Herrmann enhances Gort’s lumbering movement in the slow, quadruple meter and predominance of half-notes. Beginning with the first figure in the theremins, Herrmann also colors the cue with frequent tritone movement, but phrased differently throughout the orchestra. One finds movement on the strong beats in the organs and pianos. Herrmann staggers the same material in the trombones and tubas and doubles it in the theremins. This pattern in the theremins contains glissandos between leaps, generating a wailing sound between the two instruments that seems to suggest Gort’s voice and lends much to our auditory perception of Gort as something to fear.

Example 3. The Day the Earth Stood Still, “Gort.” Passage colored by tritone movement and glissandos in the theremins, mm. 1-4.

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The next cue is significant for its complete dissimilarity with previous musical materials. In “Arlington,” we find Klaatu and Bobby together in Arlington National Cemetery to visit the burial site of Bobby’s father. To accompany this touching scene in a cemetery that honors fallen military heroes, Herrmann composed a fanfare reminiscent of “Taps,” seen in Example 4.

Example 4. The Day the Earth Stood Still, “Arlington.” Opening melody in muted trumpet in C, mm 1-4.

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This is the first scene in which Klaatu understands the tragic history of war in the United States before atomic power and emboldens him to preach his message to the masses.5 The ascending trumpet melody enhances Klaatu’s idealistic notions of galactic peace. In the newly-formed relationship between Bobby and Klaatu, Wise suggests that if a child is safe within Klaatu’s custody, why is everyone so afraid of him? In the pleasant melody and diatonic harmonies, lacking in any dissonant clashes, Herrmann seems to echo that sentiment. Since the theremin has been used to highlight Klaatu’s alien origins thus far, the omission of the instrument speaks to Klaatu’s sense of humanity.

The next morning, Klaatu seeks out Mrs. Benson to confess his true identity to her. She reluctantly agrees and suggests they talk on a freight elevator. As they begin to talk, the elevator stops and the lights go out. Mrs. Benson confirms for Klaatu that it is noon, and thus the beginning of his “sign.” To enhance the effect of this dramatic moment, Herrmann reuses familiar techniques in “The Elevator.” In the theremins, organs, and brass he introduces a D-minor chord followed by an A-flat minor chord (Ex. 5). Also, because the chords are sustained, it echoes the dramatic situation of the elevator being suspended in mid-air.

Ex. 5. The Day the Earth Stood Still, “The Elevator.” Meas. 1-4.

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Herrmann also brings back the recording technique employed in the opening “Prelude” for this cue as well. On a separate track, Herrmann recorded the reverberations only of vibraphones, cymbals (struck with triangle sticks), and pianos (Example 6). The reverberations are recycled every ten seconds of the thirty second cue. In matching the above material, the reverberations emanate from a sustained A-flat minor/D-minor tone cluster. By using the tritone in both orchestral and pre-recorded components, Herrmann perhaps captures Mrs. Benson’s fear as she is trapped with an alien, alone in an elevator and in the midst of shadows that resemble bars of a jail cell. In addition, the use of the recorded track, in combination with the “regular” component, creates a sonic density that might imply the magnitude of Klaatu’s “sign.”

Ex. 6. The Day the Earth Stood Still, “The Elevator.” Herrmann’s instructions for the pre-recorded track, meas. 1-3. (Reprinted by Permission of Warner Brothers Publications).

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After Klaatu tells Mrs. Benson that they will be in the elevator for several minutes, the audience sees why. Klaatu has disabled electricity throughout the world, except for hospitals, airplanes, and other life-saving mechanisms. Life, as most humans know it, has suddenly stopped. Herrmann accompanies this stasis with similar musical materials as the previous cue, “The Elevator.” In “Magnetic Pull,” he again incorporates separate tracks of pre-recorded music to heighten the impact of this awe-inspiring occasion. In the “traditionally” recorded section, Herrmann achieves his sonic mass through a network of minor second relationships (Ex. 7). The theremins play minor seconds in contrary motion, with the second theremin beginning on beat 1 with B-natural and the first theremin entering a half-beat later on B-flat. The organs enter on beat one with the second theremin playing an E minor/E-flat minor polytonal chord followed by another chord of the same quality, but again with minor second movement in contrary motion. The trumpets and trombones enter with the first theremin and sound identical chords as the Hammond organs.

Ex. 7. The Day the Earth Stood Still, “Magnetic Pull.” Traditionally recorded instruments, meas. 1-4.

bushard ex7Superimposed upon this material, Herrmann places pre-recorded tracks of chimes (played with steel mallets), pianos, and cymbals (Ex. 8). Rather than use measure numbers, Herrmann timed the separate tracks to coincide with changes in camera view. In the score, the first chord corresponds with the shot of Washington, D.C. For the first half of this fifteen-second scene, the musical material is played forwards and the second half represents another track played backwards. As the scene shifts to Times Square, the first nine seconds are played forwards and as the action moves to London, the second track enters in backwards. Each new chord is a different combination of chords a minor second apart.

Ex. 8. The Day the Earth Stood Still,“ Magnetic Pull.” Prerecorded polytonal chords corresponding to changes in location, meas. 1-4 (Reprinted by permission of Warner Brothers Publications).

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As society deals with this unexpected event, it is not clear who or what was the source of the blackout. Of course, given the fact that an alien presence walks among them, it must be his doing. Whatever the cause—aliens, Russians, nature—this phenomenon is truly frightening and Herrmann captures the emotion adequately in the chromatic progression of polytonal chords and prerecorded tracks of percussive sound masses, whose periodic “stingers” coincide with shifts in the visual narrative to different places around the globe affected by Klaatu’s demonstration. Moreover, the chromatic progression does not pull towards any particular home key and this lack of resolution echoes the feeling of helplessness encountered by humans.

After Stevens decides to reveal Klaatu’s whereabouts to the government, Mrs. Benson leaves her boyfriend to warn Klaatu that he risks being captured. As the two depart the boarding house in a taxi, the army is waiting for them at every street corner. During their flight from danger, Klaatu tells Mrs. Benson that if anything should happen to him, that she should go to Gort and utter the phrase, “Klaatu. Barada. Nikto.” Finally, as Klaatu attempts to escape the army’s grasp, he is fatally wounded.

Herrmann accompanies Mrs. Benson’s search for Gort in “Alone,” which retains the percussion ostinato from the previous cue. The first timpani continues its triplet figure and the second timpani sounds a repeated tritone progression between G-natural and D-flat. The theremins play a repeated modular melody made up of alternating minor seconds “alone” against the ostinato in the percussion (Ex. 9). The dissonance of the trembling semitone figures in the lower region of the theremins against the stasis of the percussion ostinato helps to express the fear with which Mrs. Benson fulfills Klaatu’s request. As the beauty witnesses the great beast, she realizes that she is completely alone in her task.

Ex. 9. The Day the Earth Stood Still, “Alone.” Mrs. Benson approaches Gort, meas. 1-8.

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Throughout his film-scoring career, and consistent with his training in radio scoring, Bernard Herrmann treated every project individually. There was not a “standard scoring” for Herrmann, as had been the case with the previous generation of film composers. The unique sound of the theremins was a constant reminder of the alien presence throughout the The Day the Earth Stood Still. In addition, his use of electrically amplified strings, organs, brass, percussion, and prerecorded sound masses, proved an appropriate setting to highlight a narrative concerning an extraterrestrial visitor in the film. Furthermore, the way in which Herrmann combined instruments—in large-scale cues like “Klaatu” and subtle ones with two or three instruments, such as “Arlington”—displayed the composer’s adeptness at different orchestrational settings.

However, the melodic and harmonic material within the orchestral context helped to achieve fully the desired aesthetic. Throughout the score, Herrmann exploited the semitonal tension between the tonic D-natural and flatted-second E-flat as well as the tritone relationship involving D-natural and the lowered fifth A-flat. At the heart of the semitonal and tritonal relationships between these specific scale degrees and an important reason why they work so well within the drama is their reference to modality—here the lowered second and fifth scale degrees of the Locrian mode. The use of these modal characteristics within the framework of standard tonality frustrates our harmonic expectations of the tonic-dominant symbiosis, upsets diatonic melodic convention by weakening the usual whole tone between scale degrees 1 and 2, and most importantly allows the audience to more fully experience feelings of fear, alienation, and paranoia inherent in the drama.

Herrmann was influenced by his mentor Charles Ives, witnessed in the way he combined the above sonorities in polytonal sound masses most notably in the several prerecorded tracks. Finally, the various and multifaceted ostinatos supplied appropriate harmonic stasis by which Herrmann avoided harmonic resolution, frustrated aural expectations, and highlighted dissonant melodic material.

Film is a wonderful medium through which to examine a society’s collective consciousness and is a primary example of popular culture. However, given the technological advances, greater dramatic possibilities resulting from loosening of censorship guidelines, and increased artistic freedom because of the decline of the major studio’s influence, the majority of movies from the 1950s appears to reflect the predominant, conservative views towards religion, politics, foreign policy, societal pressures to conform, etc.6 Despite that trend, The Day the Earth Stood Still not only represents wonderfully the type of drama produced in the post-major studio era, but also demonstrates incisive commentary that tends to be contrary to prevailing cultural values.

One of Herrmann’s favorite quotations was fromTolstoy: “Eagles fly alone and sparrows fly in flocks.”7 Mainly because of his career in radio, he insisted that film music should mold and conform to the drama that it serves. With his contribution to The Day the Earth Stood Still, Herrmann not only enhanced the feelings of fear and paranoia inherent in the narrative, but also became the most prominent member of a new school of film music composition.



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Biskind, Peter. Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

Brown, Royal S. Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.

Bruce, Graham. Bernard Herrmann: Film Music and Narrative. 2nd ed. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1985.

Fiegel, E. Todd. “Bernard Herrmann as Musical Colorist: A Musicodramatic Analysis of His Score for The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Journal of Film Music 1, no. 2/3 (2003): 185-215.

Gabbard, Krin. “Religious and Political Allegory in Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Literature/Film Quarterly 10, no. 3 (1982): 150-54.

Hendershot, Cyndy. Paranoia, the Bomb, and 1950s Science Fiction Films. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999.

Herrmann, Bernard. The Day the Earth Stood Still. Original Score. Bernard Herrmann Papers. Department of Special Collections, Donald C. Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Leemann, Sergio. Robert Wise on His Films: From Editing Room to Director’s Chair. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1995.

Leydon, Rebecca. “Hooked on Aetherophonics: The Day the Earth Stood Still.” In Off the Planet: Music, Sound, and Science Fiction Cinema, edited by Philip Hayward, 30-41. Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey Publishing, 2004.

Miller, Douglas T. and Marion Nowak. The Fifties: The Way We Really Were. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1977.

Rahn, Jay. “Coordination of Interval Sizes in Seven-Tone Collections.” Journal of Music Theory 35, no.1-2 (1991): 33-60.

Riesman, David. The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950.

Rosar, William H. “Bernard Herrmann: The Beethoven of Film Music?” Journal of Film Music 1, no. 2/3 (2003): 121-52.

Smith, Steven C. A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991.

Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. 2nd ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Stouffer, Samuel A. Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties: A Cross-Section of the Nation Speaks Its Mind. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1955.

Von Gunden, Kenneth and Stuart H. Stock. Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films. New York: Arlington House, 1982.

Wierzbicki, James. “Weird Vibrations: How the Theremin Gave Musical Voice to Hollywood’s Extraterrestrial ‘Others’”. Journal of Popular Film and Television 30, no. 3 (2002): 125-35.



1Von Gunden and Stock, Twenty, 38.

2Ibid., 41.

3Unless otherwise noted, all examples are either transcribed or reprinted from Herrmann’s original score in the Bernard Herrmann Collection at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

4Rahn, “Coordination, 36.

5Fiegel, “Bernard Herrmann,” 205.

6Miller and Nowak, The Fifties, 328.

7Smith, A Heart, 3.


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