Behind the Mask: Music in Psycho

Bond composer David Arnold on Bernard Hermann's iconic score.

The extraordinary thing about the score to Psycho is that it was written for strings only. So immediately Bernard Herrmann’s decided to do away with what your traditional orchestral palette might offer. There’s no woodwind, no percussion, no brass: you’re limited to just strings. The great thing about this is that you have a range of tonalities and effects, and also pitch – you can go from the very lowest note in the double basses right up to the higher harmonics in the violins. Also, you can pluck the strings, hit the instrument with your bow… there’s an awful lot of things you can do on strings to make it sound different.

So he chose this palette of sound to go with the film. Obviously, the film’s in black and white: his idea for it was that he wanted to make a ‘black and white score’ that complemented the b&w of the movie itself. And we know that b&w is incredibly evocative, in photography or in film: there’s an awful lot of tonal range and colour you don’t necessarily get in colour. There’s something about the tonality of the photography that made Bernard Herrmann think about this in strings only. He famously wrote a lot of odd ensembles anyway: he wrote for 12 pianos and 6 harps, and all sorts of strange things.

Another piece of very genius composition and orchestration on this film: on all stringed instruments there’s a thing called a mute, it’s a little velvet pad that goes across the strings and clips on near the bridge. It softens the sound and makes it very glassy and transparent and quite gentle, and so if you play it hard, you don’t get that much of a ‘screech’ out of your instrument. So the whole thing sounds very, very repressed. When you take it off, the sound is much brighter and sharper. All the way through this score the orchestra plays with the mutes on, apart from that one scene in the shower where those strings are hit as hard and as high as you can, and that’s what gives that incredible shrieking sound.

"There’s something about the tonality of the b&w photography that made Bernard Herrmann think about the score in strings only."

When you hear a restored version in a theatre, you notice the very different change in sound and actually how visceral, how shocking, that is. I’d never really noticed it before – aside from hearing it in the context of parodies and commercials – but once you get into the rhythm of the score you’ll really feel it when it comes in.

Aside from that you have this beautiful travelling music, which is very gentle. It’s a score that seems without any hope whatsoever: there’s not really any moment of redemption in the film. It feels very bleak and shocking: ‘visceral’ is a word I keep coming back to.

Interestingly enough it is the complete opposite of what Alfred Hitchcock had asked for. He asked Herrmann to score it with a very light, jazzy, be-bop kind of score. And Herrmann is famously a man who doesn’t really take instruction from anyone. I think he’s quoted as saying, ‘If I ever have to do what a director tells me to, I’d rather not do the film. I just can’t work like that.’ As a composer, one can understand the beauty of being allowed to do exactly what you want, but it’s very rare that you’re afforded the opportunity to do that.

Herrmann also thought that directors generally didn’t know anything about music, that if films were scored the way directors wanted, they’d be a disaster. So it’s a very bold statement to be making musically.

Famously Hitchcock did leave him to do exactly what he wanted. So there’s always this odd dichotomy: film composition and filmmaking is a team sport, and Herrmann was a hugely important part of the team, but wanted to do his own thing.

It’s probably the first film where parody was due to come soon after, because no one had ever, ever heard a sound like the one he made for the shower scene. Which again, astonishingly, Hitchcock had said he didn’t want any music for – he wanted it all done on sound – the sound of the curtain ripping, some dull screams and the water going down the drain. It was when they screened it that Hitchcock was very worried and thought he might cut the scene down. And Herrmann said ‘I’ve got an idea…’

What you’re about to see is the culmination of the brilliance of those ideas. So we won’t waste any more time. I hope you enjoy Psycho and thanks very much for coming.

Composer David Arnold (Little Britain, Casino Royale), 2 April 2011.

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