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Arts Desk

The Story Behind That Really Creepy Sound In The Film Score from The Day The Earth Stood Still

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Getty Images/ Silver Screen Collection
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Michael Rennie as Klaatu, followed by the powerful robot Gort on the poster for science fiction classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951. Patricia Neal is the damsel in distress.

When composer Bernard Herrmann made the move from New York to Hollywood in 1951 to score the film, The Day The Earth Stood Still, he already had a taste of what an alien invasion could sound like; in 1938 he had conducted the live music for Orson Welles’ infamous Halloween radio broadcast, The War of the Worlds.So when Herrmann received this commission—his first—he pulled out all the stops. His scoring was groundbreaking using an odd combination of instruments: electric violin, bass, and cello with organs, glockenspiels, harps, tubas and pianos, to portray an uneasy feeling right from the opening credits,

But the instrument that set the score apart from all previous scores was the theremin.

The theremin is the only instrument played without touching it. In 1928, Russian inventor Leon Theremin, who had already invented the burglar alarm and a mechanical television, patented a new electronic instrument with a decidedly other-worldly sound.

Flix@5 on WRTI launches out of this world with Alien Invasion Week, starting on Monday, October 26th. We’ll feature music from films where the visitors to Earth range from the cute and quirky to the downright terrifying.

The theremin is basically a box with two antennas. The vertical one controls the pitch of the note, and the horizontal one controls the volume. The thereminist waves his hands near the instrument, interrupting the electromagnetic fields created by the antennas, causing its characteristic sound.

Watch Leon Theremin himself play his invention:

It was precisely that sound that gave The Day The Earth Stood Still score its signature creepiness. Herrmann’s use of the theremin was copied by other film composers, and the instrument has been associated with science-fiction and thriller movies ever since.

You can hear it in Ghostbusters, The Thing from Another World, Mars Attacks, Spellbound, and The Lost Weekend, among others. (Even the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones used it in “Good Vibrations” and “Please Go Home” respectively.) 

Watch Lydia Kavina and Thorwald Jogensen play the theme from The Day The Earth Stood Still in a live performance at the 4th International Theremin Festival in Santiago Chile in 2018:

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Full disclosure: This is one of my favorite movies and has been ever since I first saw it as a kid on the late show on television in the 1960s. The music at the opening titles sent shivers up my spine, and I was hooked. It has one of the best flying-saucer landing scenes, and the silent silver alien robot Gort scared the bejesus out of me.

It has only been in recent years that I’ve realized how much Bernard Herrmann is responsible for that.

On my wall hangs this collection of signatures from the cast and director, minus that of Herrmann's, which is rarer than a ticket to Area 51.