Jump to content
Search In
  • More options...
Find results that contain...
Find results in...

Recommended Posts

Good Day:  I'm James Spencer, a musicologist from Long Beach, California.  I wanted to create a panel discussion on the key points to Bernard Herrmann's score for Hitchcock's Psycho. 


Psycho is the most iconic horror score of all time and set the bar to inspire other horror film composers to compose in a similar style.  Here are some key points about Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score:


1.  Scored for only String Orchestra using the whole voicing range of instruments:  violins I and II, violas, cellos and double bass.  Each line of music often was divided into two parts to create 8 to 10 voice harmony. 


2.  THE HITCHCOCK CHORD: The iconic jolting opening chords of Psycho became known as the Hitchcock Chord.  It is technically a minor triad [b-flat, D flat, F] with the added dissonance of a Major 7th interval [A] =Bb, Db,F A  over an F bass.   The chord is dissonant, jolting and also ambiguous.  Major and minor together.  The chord can represent the duality of the main character Norman Bates..  Passive/Aggressive, Masculine/Feminine, Gentle/Dangerous.  The strings create the effect with sforzandi (forceful) down bow.


3.  The Use of Minor 2nd intervals for tension and unsettled feeling.  The use of minor 2nds or half steps is used throughout Herrmann's score.  It creates tension, dissonance and an unsettled feeling.  This device would inspire John Williams when he created his iconic minor 2nd theme for the movie Jaws. 


4. The use of Augmented 4th Intervals: Diabolus in Musica.  Known as the Devil in Music as early as the Medieval period, The augmented fourth interval  for example C to F# creates dissonant tension.  In the City scene of Psycho (the voyeur scene of looking at Janet Leigh/Robert Walker in the Hotel room.  We get in the high register of the strings ambiguous Perfect and Augmented descending fourths.  The effect is not romantic, but eerie, unsettling, icy and cold.  Like the decision of Janet's character to steal the money.  It psychologically sets up the feeling that something is wrong.


5.  Shower Scene:  Hermann makes use of a device known as glissando.  That is when the string players slide their fingers up the strings.  Down with knife like sharp down bows, the string players would slide up to strings to specified notes.  Often a Major 7th apart (from the Hitchcock Chord) to create the terrifying effect.  

6.  Use of harmonics, the wood of the bow for bowing and pizzicato for effects.  Bernard Herrmann uses all kinds of effects for tension and drama.  Harmonics is created by barely touching the strings to create very high pure overtones.  The wood of the bow instead of the horse hair can create metallic and airy effects,  Pizzicato is plucking the strings which also creates additional depth of texture. 


7. Repeated ostinato:  The famous 16th not triplet followed by an 8th note motif throughout the movie creates the psychotic feeling.  It is one of the most recognized motifs in all of move musical scores. 


Here is a link where TCM students may watch the actual musical score for Psycho with the music.  Enjoy!  Thanks for joining me and feel free to comment or add any points.  This is obviously just the basic overview of some important points of the score.  I included links (Sorry the files were to large to download. 


Psycho discussed by James Spencer: 


Psycho Score with Music: 



James Spencer


  • Like 3
Link to post
Share on other sites

For a more detailed look at Bernard Herrmann's life and career, I have included this short 10 minute video where I discuss some of his key movies:


1. Daniel and Mr. Webster (1941) :  Herrmann wins his only Academy Award.  

2. Citizen Kane (1941): Herrmann experiments with orchestral color such as scoring parts of the score with 4 alto flutes. 

3. Hangover Square (1945): He writes a through composed 1 movement piano concerto and begins to establish his Horror/Suspense iconic sound. The score has many typical Herrmann elements such as the use of tritones, minor 2nds, chromatics and the minor/major 7th (later known as the Hitchcock chord).  He uses a Requiem dirge in the lowest range of the piano for eerie Goth effect.  

4.  The Man That Fell To Earth (1951): Herrmann experiments with the theremin, the same instrument used by Rosza for the movie Spellbound.



The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) Hitchcock masterfully re-orchestrates The Storm Clouds Cantata by Arthur Benjamin....also conducting it in a cameo for the 1956 remake. 


Vertigo: The famous hypnotic motif of an augmented chord (D, Bb, Gb D Gb Bb).


Psycho:  All string score. Use of minor 2nds and augmented 4ths.  The ambiguous Hitchcock Chord Bb,Db,F,A over F bass.


Birds: Electronic manipulation of birds and synthesizer and other effects to masterful effect. 


Bernard Herrmann discussed:


  • Like 4
Link to post
Share on other sites

In my opinion Bernard Herrmann and John Williams are the only two men who scored movies who deserve an exceptional degree of analytical study. Without their work, many films would be much less than what they turned out be be due to the music--dare I say, they might not even be classics.   

  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites

One Oscar for Herrmann--and not for a Hitchcock film!  Nor only that, it looks like he never even received a nomination for a Hitch film.  


It's disheartening to see how poorly the Academy has recognized great work.  


But they do recognize John Williams, who has 5 Oscars plus nominations in nearly every year of his 50-year career.  

  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks, James, for the analysis!  Very interesting stuff.

I find music theory fascinating, but the language is way over my head.  I used to play an instrument in my school band, but I don't know much about chords and things.  It's tough for me to make sense of musical analysis without being walked through the terms from the beginning, with audio examples along the way.  I envy people who've studied music enough to discuss it in technical terms, but I don't suppose I'll ever get around to taking courses in music theory any time soon.

You seem very knowledgeable about both composition and Bernard Herrmann.  It's good of you to make these little lessons for the Hitchcock class and share your expertise.

I've really been digging Herrmann's music lately, watching the Hitchcock films from the 1950s-'60s.  Psycho is great, and I really enjoyed his work on The Trouble With Harry, too (it's kind of light and mischievous).  Herrmann's scores played a big role in the films he worked on, propelling the action forward rather than settling into the background.  I wonder if there are any good CDs out there with Herrmann's film scores...

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

At Jimmy L. 


Thanks for dropping by the panel discussion. Glad you love Herrmann's scores too and have been examining them.  


Many of Herrmann's actual scores are up on Youtube with the music so you can view the score as you listen.  I included a link to Psycho score as well. 


Yes agreed a basic knowledge of music theory is helpful in understanding the devices Herrrmann uses to get certain effects,  but just listening offers many clues. 


There are numerous cd and digital collections of Herrmann's scores as well as many documentaries.  The Psycho dvds  often include the Herrmann documentary on his music. 


I encourage all Herrmann fans to listen to Hangover Square's Concerto Macabre as it is in my opinion one of his first great works in the gothic horror genre..  This score sets up things that would happen later in Psycho and Vertigo. 

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
© 2022 Turner Classic Movies Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Cookie Settings
  • Create New...