Psycho: When Bernard Herrmann's Music Spoke Louder than Words.
Updated: Aug 23
Maestro Richard Kaufman joins the L.A. Sound in a special podcast to share his experience conducting Psycho live in concert, as well as his time as head of music for television at M.G.M Studios, and his many encounters with legendary film composers.
Richard Kaufman has devoted much of his musical life to conducting and supervising music for film and television productions, as well as performing film and classical music in concert halls and on recordings. He as most recently conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, San Diego Symphony, and the Boston Pops, among many others.
Imagine you're a film composer. When you're asked to write music for a new movie and see it for the first time, what do you do? What is your process? What kind of music do you write for somebody mundanely driving down a street, or somebody sitting quietly at a desk? Usually, a composer's life is made easier when they sit down with the director who tells them where and what kind of music they want for each scene. But for Alfred Hitchcock, it wasn't the case.
"Hitch" could be temperamental, one day not caring where or what kind of music was written, and the next being very particular, telling the composer that the music they had already written and perhaps even recorded, didn't align with his vision. So naturally, his greatest collaborator ended up being with someone of an equally difficult temperament, Bernard Herrmann.
"Benny" was legendary for a great many accomplishments in the music world, but what he was probably best known for was his bad temper and unwavering insistence that everything he wrote was perfect and needed no refinement or editing. So its pretty amazing that he was able to work in the film industry at all, let alone with Hitchcock.
But over all it wasn't his words that were really doing the talking, it was his music. Maybe what he wrote sometimes didn't always synchronize with the film, or it wasn't what the director asked for, but at the end of the day he always wrote music that worked as a perfect companion to the film. That's what Hitchcock was really interested in, and being of equal temperaments, they knew how to play off each other to create some of the greatest films of all time.
So when it came time to score Psycho, it was the same song and dance between director and composer, except this time with a catch. Since the film studios had no interest in funding a film about a serial killer who dressed up like his dead mother, Hitchcock ended up mortgaging his house to pay for the film himself. Psycho had to be done on a very modest and strict budget, including the music.
By necessity or instinct, Herrmann ended up going with a large string ensemble, completely unusual for a composer who was famous for writing almost exclusively for mammoth sized orchestras. Psycho was created in a very precise and delicate manner, with the black and white lending to an even more intense focus on every detail. Strings are very similar in the manner. Chameleon like, and are able to very delicately or robustly create a rainbow of nearly limitless colors and effects.
Finding his way into the mood of the score, he looked back to a work he had written two decades prior, Sinfonietta, which for it's time was written in the ever growing popular style of the a-tonal master, Arnold Schönberg. If you listen carefully, sections such as the Scherzo (3:55), reveal the early seeds of what would become one of Hollywood's most famous scores.
Unlike their previous film, North by North West, Psycho was much less action based, and required a score that was more intimate. What makes the score so unique is the way Herrmann chose to use music as a tool to emit the unspoken feelings of the characters.
Straight from the opening, the music is very slow, thin, and without much distinction, setting an unexpected and eerie mood. And as the camera pans to the hotel room window, new music begins that is gentle but mysterious, giving a sense of lethargy that doesn't set any mood at all, but touchingly draws the audience into the life and mind of Marion Crane.
As the scene progresses, what we see is passion, but what we feel is a tender, yearning sadness for a marriage she knows will never happen. The music continues in the scene, but never quite resolves as if going nowhere and to infinity at the same time.
Then silence, as Marion returns to her job and continues her emotionless day to day activities. We don't hear music again until the thought occurs in Marion's head to steal the money. Her mixed emotions are mirrored by slowly added harmony, going back and forth between tonal and a-tonal, while she grapples with having to choose between good and evil.
After stealing the money, she flees town. The music races, evoking the feeling of panic and paranoia, moving all over the place as millions of thoughts sporadically race through her head. Surprisingly, the music is suddenly cut when Marion is interrogated by the police officer. In this brief scene, Herrmann's genius is shown through his choice of silence, portraying the feeling of frozen panic, better than music could. As she pulls away alone with her thoughts, panic sets in once again.
Aside from the opening titles for Star Wars (1977) by John Williams, the shower scene from Psycho is probably the most iconic music ever written for a film, tattooing itself into the minds of anyone who has seen even just that scene. But legend has it that Hitchcock originally requested that no music be written for the scene, to create a sobering reality of the murder. In the video below, we can see the scene without the music.
Without the music, the scene is now almost literally naked. Because the murder is so sudden and unexpected, the silence completely breaks the intimate concentration of the audience. They have just spent an hour immersing themselves in the mind of Ms.Crane, who is now being brutally murdered in a shower by an unknown vagrant, and the sudden absence of music disconnects the audience, breaking the spell of believable reality.
Shocking, swift, and cold as a knife's blade, Herrmann created (against Hitchcock's will) the secret ingredient that wrapped psychological tentacles around the viewers minds, making them feel as though they were that poor women in the shower. And although the music sounds repetitive, it isn't. It begins with sharp attacks that get more and more drawn out, giving the feeling that the assailant is getting tired and sloppy, and fades away as her consciousness blurs.
After the biggest plot twist in history, all of the music from when Marion was alive, is never heard again. The audience is left not knowing who or what the story is actually about, and as the film begins to become more twisted, the music becomes more schizophrenic, a-tonal and finally nauseating with the discovery of Norman's mother in the basement.
But the eeriest of all the music comes in the final scene with the slow zoom in on Norman's face as he talks to himself in the voice of his mother. The music is now completely a-tonal, matching Norman's complete break with sanity.
As the film turns 60 this year, it still remains a timeless classic that keeps audiences looking over their shoulder every time they take a shower, instilling a complete sense of panic if they get soap in their eyes, blinding them from any knife wielding, cross dressing intruders. Without a doubt, Bernard Herrmann's score not only saved the film, but made it into a one in a million masterpiece that managed to instill a constant psychological battle of being to scared to watch, but too curious to look away.
When Herrmann later questioned "Hitch" about his original request for no music in the shower scene, he replied "well, an improper suggestion my dear".
A great many thanks to Maestro Richard Kaufman for taking the time to share his brilliant insight on this timeless score.
Although performance of the full film is not currently available, a suite of the film's music, performed here by Sir André Previn and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, can be rented from Wise Music.