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Psycho Score


Bernard Herrmann

Production Credits
Original music by Bernard Herrmann
Composed for the film Psycho, 1960
Conducted by Joel McNeely
Recorded July 29, 1997
40 Tracks, Total Time 58:16
Performed by:
The Royal Scottish
National Orchestra

Label: Varese Records

When it was first shown in 1960, Psycho--Alfred Hitchcock's first real horror picture, and his most daring production up to that time--was not in general very warmly received by film critics. Although the film proved a big box office success, only gradually did this macabre experiment in black humour become the object of closer scrutiny and more intense analysis. The consensus today is that Psycho is a classic of cinematic art and admiration for it is world-wide. Yet for all the amount of documentary and critical material on Psycho that has appeared and continues to appear, one of the film's most essential features has received the scantest of attention; the musical score by Bernard Herrmann.

Only as late as 1974 was this omission repaired when Fred Steiner, an old Hollywood colleague of Herrmann's and a composer of radio films and television in his own right, prepared a paper on the Psycho score as a special research project for the University of Southern California Cinema Department. To Mr. Steiner and to Elmer Bernstein, whose Film Music Club first undertook its publication in their bulletins, we are indebted for permission to make substantial use of this analysis here. All the introductory matter is Mr. Steiner's, and the bulk of the analyses of individual cues; my own contribution consists mainly in adding some details of the scenario as the music unfolds, and in furnishing descriptions of those sequences not dealt with by Mr. Steiner, both in the interests of a continuous but (as far as possible) non-technical commentary.

Shower Scene By the time he was commissioned to write the score for Psycho, Herrmann's name was already closely linked with Hitchcock's. Their association had begun in 1955 with The Trouble with Harry and continued with the Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). The Wrong Man (1957), Vertigo(1958) and North by Northwest(1959). And although music by Bernard Herrmann was to be found on the screen credits of films by many distinguished directors--Welles, Disterle, Robert Wise, Henry King, and others--to most of the cinema world he wasthe composer for Hitchcock pictures. But what is it about the Psycho music that sets it apart from other film scores composed before and since?

The most noticeable departure from film music custom is hat Herrmann elected a daring and controversial orchestral combination: strings alone. Now such a combination imposes severe limitations on the range of available tone-colours. This means a commensurate increase of composing problems, since generally it is important for composers to be able to call on the many resources of the symphonic ensemble--woodwinds, brass and percussion as well as strings--for variety and contrast in the treatment of musical material. But Herrmann's selection of strings alone deprived him of the many tried-and-true musical formulas and effects normally employed in the scoring of horror and suspense films (and for all its originality Psycho retains many of the features commonly found in traditional horror movies). And Herrmann also had to contend with the fact that in most people's minds the strings are associated first and foremost with romance. Nine times out of ten when a love scene takes place on the screen the violins will soar in a big tune, the cellos throb in a passionate counter-melody. Why then would a composer decide on such a sweet-sounding ensemble for a film of chills and horror?

In an interview given in 1971 Herrmann explained that he had used only strings for Psycho because he felt that he could complement the black-and-white photography of the film by creating a black-and-white sound. Can such a thing exist in music? It can when we remember that the string choir of the modern symphony orchestra, the largest body within that ensemble, may have only one basic tone-colour, but it also enjoys certain other advantages not possessed by the other instrumental families when isolated from their normal symphonic context. The strings span the longest effective gamut of notes: they have an effective range of dynamics unmatched by the other groups; and within the boundaries of their basic single tone-colour they can command a great number and variety of special effects. And when the expressive range of the string orchestra is compared to that of black-and-white photography, Herrmann's analogy becomes perfectly clear. Just like the "no colour" images of a black-and-white film, the string orchestra has the capability--within the limits of its one basic colour--of producing an enormous range of expression and a great variety of dramatic and emotional effects, with all the gradations in between.

Shower Scene One other out-of-the ordinary feature of the Psycho music should be mentioned. One does not have to be a musician to notice a marked absence of tunes or melodies in the sense in which these terms are generally used (particularly in a film music context). For one of the hallmarks of Herrmann's style is a predilection for the use of small motifs which are often of an individual rhythmic character. It is safe to say that in Psycho Herrmann was simply following his own customary practice in this respect. but the result in this case is a special, disturbing quality, one which contributes greatly to the score's overall effectiveness as a "black-and-white" counterpart to Hitchcock's classic thriller.

The Murder: We may surely consider the music which enters at this moment as one of the most horrifying cues ever composed. Several musicians and informed cinemagoers have referred to "bird-shrieks" and "distorted screaming bird-cries" in this connection. There are none. All we hear when Marion is killed are the shrill, stabbing thrusts of the strings in their topmost registers. Herrmann was once asked what thought was uppermost in his mind when creating this unique and hair-raising cue. He replied in one word: "terror." The extraordinary fact remains to be noted that Hitchcock's original intention was to film this scene without music. Later when the director became very dissatisfied with the finished product, Herrmann prevailed upon him to try the murder with music, and the result exceeded his wildest imaginings.

--CHRISTOPHER PALMER, from the liner notes,
Psycho, conducted by the composer, 1975.

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