Psycho

Like every summer, I have those I’m-so-bored-I-could-stare-at-a-wall-for-hours kinds of days, so it’s nothing unusual when I spend most of my time digging through and organizing stacks of academic papers just to humor myself. Before letting them gather any more dust and become a home for spiders, I came across one particular assignment from my “Music in Film” class that I enjoyed working on, which was a listening assignment on the score of Psycho (1960). While reading through the notes I took, I thought I could try and expand upon them a little further.

Psycho was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and stars Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, and John Gavin. The score was composed and conducted by Bernard Herrmann, and features only string instrumentation. Both the film and the score are very influential on their own, but it’s no doubt they complement each other very well.

Back then, it was not uncommon for a film score to have a set of themes. There are several themes that can be heard throughout this particular film, including the “Flight” theme. From the opening credits, it first recurs as Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is recognized by her boss while in her car. At this point, Marion is planning to “take flight”—if you will—and the music accents the sheer panic that suddenly overwhelms her. She must not be seen, but already, things do not start off well. Shortly after this encounter, the theme spots in again as Marion drives away from a highway officer.

I remembered something my professor had said about turning the sound off during this scene, and decided to try it. There was indeed a noticeable change. Although Marion exhibits her stress through subtle body language (eyes shifting back and forth from the rearview mirror), I felt the scene to be almost void of panic. However, once I added the music back in, it became apparent to me that I could easily feel her distress. The cue certainly enhances that.

Just when anything bad is starting to happen in a film, it rains. But what is rain in Psycho without the foreboding sounds of discordant strings to accompany it? It is here that we are revisited by the “Flight” theme as Marion drives down the highway, while heavy raindrops and bright headlights blur and blind her vision. The frenetically-played notes synchronize to the action of the windshield wipers that are furiously moving back and forth, subtly hinting at how repetition can be found in various forms throughout the film. Just before Marion winds up at Bates Motel, the music ends with a sustained, ominous low note, foreshadowing what was to come.

I don’t think this post would be anywhere complete if I didn’t talk about the well-known and instantly-recognized theme associated with Psycho—that repetitive shrieking, grating sound that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand and leaves my skin crawling without fail. Honestly, no matter how many times it plays throughout the movie (and I know it’s coming), I always seem to jump out of my seat. Always. Now, the music in this film plays in an almost unpredictable manner, all except this one particular theme. I don’t know if it’s just me, but the repetition of the sharp, swooping dissonance of the strings seems to be playing a steadier rhythm, and I can’t help but think that whenever Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is about to commit such a gruesome act, it is almost as if it’s something that provides some form of stability for him?

Towards the middle of the film, another cue spots in while the detective (Martin Balsam) searches the house. When he first enters, the strings quietly play what I can only describe as discordant arpeggios in an uncomfortably high register (there’s probably a better term for it somewhere, but I never got that far in music theory), and the slow pacing parallels the detective’s stealthy movements. A note sustains as he walks up the stairs, almost as if he were holding his breath. It is paired with the alternating scene of a bedroom door slowly being opened. At first, the mood is very still, but when “Mother” appears from her bedroom and rushes out towards the detective in maddening horror, the iconic theme jumps out at you like she does.

One final cue I would like to talk about is the one that spots in during the scene when Lila Crane (Vera Miles) goes to hide in the cellar. Moments before, the atmosphere is frantic as Norman is seen bounding up the stairs to the house. The strings play a chaotic array of notes that almost sound as if they’re ascending and descending at the same time. I mean, it makes sense: Norman ascends up the stairs, while Lila scrambles to descend down another set of stairs to avoid being seen. Lila then discovers the cellar, and some unknown force beckons her to investigate further. With suspense high and thick in the air, the tension gradually builds up as she approaches Mother from behind—only to reveal her as a corpse—and as Norman suddenly appears at the door with a knife. The main theme (which actually has a couple of different titles) plays once again here, and creates a strained momentum of anticipation.

The score provides cues that spot in and out at the appropriate scenes, and effectively allows the viewer to peek into the psychological subtexts of the characters, especially of Norman. Although I still find myself getting caught up in the story every so often to pay close attention to the music, I hope to delve further into this side of films that I had never fully or properly acknowledged before this year.

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