‘Psycho’ Music

A look at one of movie history’s best remembered composers and the music he wrote for one of Hitchcock’s best remembered films.

Most people are familiar with John Williams‘ pulsating string bass section depicting a great white shark ominously hunting swimmers in Jaws (1975).

But has there ever been a more iconic — and caricatured — musical metaphor than Bernard Herrmann’s high-pitched, slashing violins underpinning Janet Leigh’s brutal murder in the shower scene from Psycho (1960)?

Herrmann could certainly write a catchy tune or movie theme – such as his lyrical jazz saxophone salute to film noir in 1976’s Tax Driver. But it’s the bone-chilling shower music (which appears twice more in the film, when Norman’s ‘mother’ attacks intruder Martin Balsam and then attempts to kill Vera Miles in the family root cellar), that make people want to download Bernard Herrmann film music.

Herrmann’s inventive scoring highlights and perfectly complements Hitchcock’s nightmarish vision of sudden death – while rhythmically conveying its violence:

Most film fans know the story. Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane purposely fails to make a bank deposit, effectively embezzling her boss’ funds. With this impetuous act, the film becomes increasingly dark, foreboding and claustrophobic, as exemplified by Herrmann’s rich underscoring:

Shortly thereafter (despite the brief appearance of a swamp and the famous conclusion at the police station), the film can’t seem to escape the hanging fog that surrounds the Bates Hotel and house. In many ways, Psycho is Hitchcock’s most unrelenting dark and humorless film.

Herrmann’s makes two important scoring choices to support Hitchcock’s masterpiece:

  1. Herrmann’s orchestra is only comprised of strings, which in Herrmann’s skillful hands provide a homogeneous weariness. No brass, no woodwinds, no percussion – no sudden bursts of color. The instrumentation is as bleak, dry and claustrophobic as the film’s drab locations and black and white cinematography;
  2. Herrmann was not an inaccessible modernist. He clearly understood the psychology of Hitchcock’s morbid conception. Consequently, Herrmann’s score is consistently playing to the tensions of unresolved dissonances and shifting tonalities; all in all providing a rather creepy soundscape.

Hitchcock and Herrmann worked on seven films together, with Marnie being their last feature.

Herrmann was also credited as composer for 17 episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1963 to 1965).

And Herrmann and Hitchcock were reunited posthumously when Psycho – quite inexplicably – was remade in 1998: Line-for-line, scene-for-scene and note for brilliantly-composed note.

The Great Hitchcock-Herrmann Collaborations

You can stream all seven Hitchcock-Herrmann films online. Several are available with a subscription to Starz ($8.99 a month after a seven-day free trial). All are available to rent starting at $2.99 in SD, $3.99 in HD.

Marnie (1964) — Starz subscription; on demand from Google Play and other providers

Psycho (1960) — Starz subscription; on demand from from Fandango and other providers

North by Northwest (1959) — On demand from Vudu and other providers

Vertigo (1958) — Starz subscription; on demand from Amazon and other providers

The Wrong Man (1956) — On demand from Google Play and other providers

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) — Starz subscription; on demand from the Microsoft Store and other providers

The Trouble With Harry (1955) — Starz subscription; on demand from Amazon.

You can also rent the 1998 Psycho from various providers.

About Charlie Greenberg

Charlie Greenberg is a NY-based theater and instrumental composer.

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