Blog / Bernard Herrmann's Psycho

Bernard Herrmann's Psycho

Posted on 3 Mar 2016 by Leo Messias

Pictured: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in Psycho's shower scene

Of course film music isn’t Richard Strauss, as Bernard Herrmann once scoffed. Because if it was Strauss you wouldn’t pay attention to the film.

by Gordon Williams



Bernard Herrmann underrated the importance of his own music in films he worked on, and particularly those with Alfred Hitchcock - Vertigo, Psycho, and North by Northwest.

If he’d been born a century or even 50 years earlier, Herrmann would probably have built a career in the concert hall. He himself wished for greater recognition for his Sinfonietta, cantata Moby Dick and opera, Wuthering Heights (recorded with soprano, Morag Beaton, later to be a regular with the then-Australian Opera).


Herrmann's Sinfonietta


Moby Dick


Wuthering Heights


But the New Yorker went into more contemporary media - joining CBS Radio, albeit as a conductor who often introduced symphonic repertoire over the wireless, and has gone down in history as one of the great film composers, writing for Orson Welles, Truffaut, Scorsese and Brian de Palma.

Hitchcock and Herrmann started working together after Hitchcock had finished the 1954 comedy, To Catch a Thief. Alfred and Alma Hitchcock hosted Bernard and his wife, Lucy, at their home in Bel Air. But the friendship was more one of artistic compatibility (and complement). Herrmann’s music provided the emotional heat of the dramas Hitchcock objectively but incisively pictured.

Hitchcock had the more puritanical temperament. Spoiler alert: the villain of Psycho is the murderous psychopath Norman Bates who murders anyone who might unsettle his post-mortem relationship with his mother. But Hitchcock’s censuring gaze is reserved for Marion Crane who will be knifed by Norman before she can return the money she has stolen. Clearly for Hitchcock, no amount of guilt can expiate a crime.

Hitchcock was disappointed in the film he created from Paul Stefano’s screenplay (based on Robert Bloch’s sensationalist novel). He wanted to cut it down to an hour for television. But Herrmann told Hitchcock to go on holiday and ‘leave it to me.’ Hitchcock returned to hear a score which elevated the movie to the status of a classic.

And Herrmann (right) said to Hitchcock (left) to go on holiday and 'leave it to me' to fix Psycho.

Just what had he done? Some examples: Herrmann’s incisive string music for the credits promises a creepy story to follow. This music returns in tonight’s suite, but the reprise serves a stunning dramatic purpose in the film. Half an hour in, Marion Crane is driving through inland California, with a stolen $40,000 in her trunk. But what do the visuals actually consist of - close-ups of Marion’s face over the steering wheel, the changing road ahead. The scene lacks presentiment. ‘Well, we’ll put in voices occasionally from her mind - that they’re missing the money now...’, said Hitchcock. ‘But that still doesn’t make it terrible,’ said Herrmann. That’s when they both agreed to bring back the opening music to tell the audience that something awful would happen to Marion.

Psycho’s shower scene is justly famous. Hitchcock had originally demanded ‘no music’. When he returned from leave however, Herrmann played the scene with his stabbing violin glissandos. Hitchcock was convinced, calling his original stipulation ‘an improper suggestion’. The murder in the shower is now one of moviedom’s iconic images. But of course, no-one can see it without remembering Herrmann’s screeching violins.

Psycho's shower scene with and without Herrmann's music.



THOMAS NEWMAN American Beauty (selections)
HERRMANN Psycho: A Suite for Strings
TIMOTHY CONSTABLE New work for strings and percussion (World Premiere)
BARTÓK Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta