Celebrating 50 years of the Psycho theme

News Jeff Szpirglas
5 Aug 2010 - 13:33

With a few jabs of orchestral strings, composer Bernard Herrmann created one of the most iconic themes in all cinema. Jeff celebrates 50 years of Psycho…

A classic horror soundtrack doesn't need much to become iconic. A simple two-note ostinato did it for Jaws. A recurring staccato keyboard and synthesized drone became Halloween. Harry Manfredini's ghostly reverberating voice haunted Friday The 13th. But ask anyone the most memorable scary film music of all time, and you'll likely get the stabbing strings underscoring Janet Leigh's murder in Psycho, which recently turned 50 years old.

Composed and conducted by the legendary Bernard Herrmann, who trained at Julliard and later broke into the filmmaking world with Orson Welles via the Mercury Theater and Citizen Kane, Psycho is more than just a musical effect. It's a fully realized score that's perfectly married to the psyche of the film and its characters.

Herrmann claimed that he used a strings-only score to create a black-and-white sound to complement the film. It could have also been an orchestration tactic to fit the film's smaller budget, which made use of the crew from Hitch's TV series as opposed to a traditional film crew.

Though its reliance on strings might seem like a limited sound palette, the section as a whole has the longest range of notes, and is capable of creating some of the more unique musical effects in the orchestra. It also gives the film a distinctive, unusual sound.

At the time, strings had been traditionally used to cue romance, as in classic scores by Erich Wolfgang Korngold or Max Steiner. But In Psycho, Herrmann turns the conventions of ‘romantic' strings on their ear.

With these strings, there's little in the way of romance, or even melody (other than a few fragments of violin heard over the urgent prelude). The prelude's strongly accented, anxious music sets an immediate grim and relentless tone, almost predicting the infamous murder sequence later in the film, and fits the Saul Bass title sequence of rising/falling vertical and horizontal bars like a glove.

Another notable cue is The Madhouse, underscoring a key scene in which Norman first snaps after Marion suggests putting his mother in an asylum. Herrmann's use of dissonant, muted strings really becomes the first sign to the audience that there's something seriously wrong with Norman Bates, and is repeated at the film's coda, in which the imprisoned Norman and Mother have psychologically fused into one.

Much of the score's unnerving effect comes from the repetition of short motifs, either descending or ascending (such as the music playing as Vera Miles climbs the stairs to the Bates House near the film's climax). There's not a lot of melodic payoff here, just consistent musical tension and moodiness.

Easily the most famous sequence of all is the Saul Bass-designed shower murder. Hitchcock hadn't considered scoring the sequence initially. It was one of the few times that he and Herrmann disagreed artistically (their collaboration would later cease after a second disagreement over the score for Torn Curtain).

If the music, created by violent downbow strokes of the strings in their highest registers, has been likened to the sound of screeching birds, it's interesting to note that Herrmann's next project with Hitchcock consisted entirely of an experimental soundscape of bird calls and noises for The Birds.

The score has been endlessly plundered or alluded to ever since. Herrmann's sensibilities can be heard in James Newton Howard's score for Signs, and when Robert Zemeckis channelled Hitchcock in his supernatural thriller, What Lies Beneath, composer Alan Silvestri aped Herrmann (and in particular, Psycho) for the score. (Check out the cue, The Getaway, and listen to the strings.)

Still, Psycho's most blatant homage can be heard in the opening title sequence from Richard Band's score to Re-Animator. Band, who considered Psycho the "quintessential" horror score, intentionally took motifs and worked his own melody over it, creating a score that sounds serious, but is perched perilously close to the edge of parody (just as Elmer Bernstein's score for Airplane! is).

Hitchcock himself has famously gone on to claim that one third of the movie's success was due to the music. Now at half a century old, both the film and Herrmann's music have withstood the test of time to become fixtures, not only of the movies, but of popular culture.

For more on the subject of movie themes see:

Psycho is available on Blu-ray from Monday.

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