Reel Sounds: Psycho Strings
Hitchcock once said that when the images of a film and its soundtrack are doing the same thing, one of them must be redundant. In the famous shower scene in Psycho, it is perhaps truer than ever. The superficial impression that image and music are simply ‘mickey mousing’ is a tribute to the effectiveness of the music. For all we see is a raised knife, a woman’s screaming face, blood around the plughole. The knife scarcely moves, and certainly never meets the flesh of Janet Leigh. It is Bernard Herrmann’s music that pierces the skin, plunges the blade and carries out the murder.
By 1960 Herrmann was already an old hand, having started his own chamber orchestra at 20, before working for many years at the Mercury Theatre with Orson Welles. The Psycho score was unusual for a horror film at that time in being only for strings, but this approach (with the addition of a little percussion) would provide the blueprint for many of James Bernard’s classic scores for Hammer Horror.
Heard in isolation from the picture, the prelude resembles at times the stringent sonorities of early Schoenberg only with added soaring, plaintive melody and machinic rhythms more akin to the work of Schoenberg’s student, Hans Eisler. Elsewhere, themes recall the sombre menace of Mahler’s Third Symphony. Snooping in Norman Bates’s bedroom, Lila Crane (Vera Miles) spies a copy of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony on the record player, and Herrmann sneaks in a pastiche of the funeral march from the second movement.
Then there is the shower scene. Initially, Hitchcock wanted the scene to play just with sound effects and no music but Herrmann talked him round, creating in the process one of the most famous pieces of film music of all time. Working as a kind of expressionist intensification of Janet Leigh’s scream, it is the aural equivalent of Edvard Munch’s famous painting, and is culturally just as central. The reference to Eroica is apposite; just like Beethoven’s symphony, Herrmann’s score meant that things would never be the same again without sounding thoroughly old-fashioned.
Watch the trailer: