Monday, April 21, 2014

Music in Horror Films: Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann


This week, let’s look at music as used in horror films. One of my favorite film directors has to be Alfred Hitchcock, the man known for his cameo appearances, use of blond actresses in his movies, and twisted plot endings. Though known for his work on many popular films including The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), and The Birds (1963), today I would like to focus our attention on his 1960 hit Psycho starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh.

Composer Bernard Herrmann wrote the score for this horrific picture and many people admit that his score is more terrifying that the visual images themselves. Do you remember when we talked about diegetic and non-diegetic music earlier this month? Well, Herrmann’s score is an example of non-diegetic music because it can only be heard by viewers and not the characters on screen. Herrmann’s use of drones and dissonances when writing the score helps contribute to the physical characteristics exhibited by the actors on screen such as paranoia, anxiety, rage, and insanity . He also writes the music for a string ensemble, giving a claustrophobic quality to the sound, foreshadowing that time is running out.  

It is interesting to note that the same music used to depict Marion Crane’s anxiety as she drives through the rain early on in the film is the same music that is used to accompany her death in the shower scene.

Do you think that this musical sequence characterizes Marion or does it foreshadow her fate or both?

How do you think the use of silence at the beginning of the shower scene is effective?

Have you seen the newer, 1998 version of Psycho? Here is a clip from the shower scene in this version. In your opinion, which is musically more effective (specifically listening to the music right before she enters the shower)?


Have you ever noticed the use of this “Psycho Theme” in other films? If so, which ones? Here’s an example I found from FindingNemo. People who are familiar with Psycho can certainly discern Darla’s character based on this association.



  1. Just a slight correction: Herrmann's famous musical cue heard in the shower murder scene (the screaming string ostinati) is not the same cue as in the "drive through the rain" scene. The murder cue recurs twice later in the film, when "mother" murders the detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) on the stairs and tries to murder Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles) in the cellar----it is always associated visually with the slashing knife (which is what it depicts musically). The musical cue heard in the "drive through the rain" sequence is the main title cue: a motif of perpetual motion, suggesting flight/being on the run (appropriately). The cue in the scene where Marion is writing the letter, then tears it up and flushes it down the toilet was heard at the very beginning of the film after the main credits, as the camera slowly moves from a long shot of the Phoenix skyline to and through the window of the motel room where Marion and Sam are having a furtive encounter. The cue begins with a series of sustained descending, revoiced chords; it is associated thereby with a feeling of claustrophobia and being "caught in the action."

    1. Thank you for your observation! I can see you have spent quite some time looking at Herrmann’s score in relation to Psycho. Here are a few comments to expand upon my earlier statements and to provide clarification for my analysis. First, my comments relate Herrmann’s score in a general rather than in a specific sense. I agree with your comment that the “screaming string ostinati” is a motif that represents the slashing of the knife that occurs multiple times in the film. My observations deal more generally with the underlying motives during the “drive through the rain” scene in which Herrmann uses strings and phrase repetition to create a sense of claustrophobia within Marion’s mind. By doing this, he creates a sense of running out of space and time, foreshadowing Marion’s fate. An underlying motive during this scene also contains an alternation of slurred and dotted notes that gives the effect of cutting off or stopping abruptly. This also, I believe, relates to the shower scene. Lastly, the mechanical character of the score at this point in the film gives the viewer a sense of something “automated, rather than human…Herrmann emphasizes this persistent, circuitous drive as emblematic of Marion’s moral trap but also to prepare the audience aurally for the musical tearing that will mark the plot’s startling turn.” The quote comes from Ross J. Fenimore’s article, “Voices that Lie Within: The Heard and Unheard in Psycho.” About this music, Herrmann once said, “We [Herrmann and Hitchock] both agreed to bring back the music we’d related to the opening of the film, which again tells the audience, who don’t know something terrible is going to happen to the girl, that it’s got to.” In conclusion, I completely agree with your statement in that the music during the “drive through the rain” scene is not identical to the shower scene. I do, however, think that the music in each scene correlate in that the earlier scene has similar string effects to the later slashing and was written with the impending murder in mind. When writing my post, I should have been more specific in stating my viewpoint. Thank you for bringing this up so I could explain further!

  2. A further note: Hitchcock originally wanted no musical underscoring at all during the shower murder sequence. Herrmann thought otherwise and composed his famous musical cue which heightens the scene emotionally to an unbearable extent. After viewing the footage both ways---with and without the musical underscoring---Hitchcock changed his mind and concurred with Herrmann. An excellent study of Herrmann's film music, particularly for Hitchcock (with a focus on the scores for "Vertigo" and "Psycho") may be found in the 1982 New York University Ph.D. dissertation of Donald G. Bruce, "Bernard Herrmann: Film Music and Film Narrative."