What psycho did with sound to change film as we know it
9/05/2017 by Finn Jacques-Dowrick
Alfred Hitchcocks 1960 Film Psycho brings together sound effects and a wonderfully crafted string Orchestra based soundtrack that keeps us on the edge of our seats throughout the movie. Bernhard Herman who created the score worked closely with Hitchcock to create a soundtrack that would make the audience feel vulnerable and also keep a sense of heightened tension throughout the movie.
As Stephen Rebello says in his book Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho (1999) “Hitchcock was dogmatic about the dramatic functions of sound and music, and often interwove his suggestions into the screenplay.” (Carlsson, par. 2)
This meant that Hitchcock provided a lot of thoughts and direction for the sound requirements for each scene. He was very clear on the fact that he wanted the diegetic sounds to play a big part in each scene He went so far as to suggest that there be “no musical at all for the motel sequence” (Carlsson, par. 12). This did not eventuate though through the work an suggestions of Bernhard Herman.
Two of the key diegetic sounds Hitchcock identified in his script direction were the sounds of the running water in the infamous shower scene and the sounds of creaking floorboards as Arbogast walks up the stairs in Normans house. During the shower scene Herman used the non diegetic sound of what has come to be known as “screaming violins” to extenuate the knife blows and heighten the feeling of fear against the backdrop of the running water and Marion’s screams. Herman again used violins “as Arbogast approaches the Bates’ house, he’s accompanied only by dull cello sounds. The music changes to high pitched violin chords when the detective enters the house, signifying that Arbogast has put himself in a risky situation. The violins continue to strain as he carefully proceeds up the stairs” (Anonymous, par. 4)
Hitchcock and Herman also used the repetition of both diegetic and non diegetic sound to create the fear of things to come. This can be seen in the scene where Marion’s sister Lila enters Normans house and again we get creaking floorboards and high pitched violins. The audience recognizes this and their fear is heightened as to what will happen next.
The use of strings to create fear and tension in movies is now widely excepted as a standard and as Stephen Rebello says in his book Hitchcock and the making of Psycho “For Psycho, Bernard Hermann was to concoct nothing less than a cello and violin masterwork, “black and white” music that throbbed sonorously as often as it gnawed at the nerve endings.” (Carlsson, par. 13)
Psycho emphasizes the importance of not only cinematographic techniques in suspense, but also of sound strategies. Suspense relies heavily on these two facets of film-making, and by utilizing both aspects, Hitchcock manipulates audiences and once again proves his mastery in the art of true horror. (Anonymous, par. 5)
1- Rebello, Stephen. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, 1998
2- Carlsson, Sven E. Sound in Psycho. Filmsound.org, http://filmsound.org/articles/hitchcock/makingpsycho.htm, n.d.
3- Anonymous, “Music takes a supporting role in psycho”, wordpress.com, https://ufilmanalysisfall13.wordpress.com/2013/10/18/music-takes-a-supporting-role-in-psycho/, October 18, 2013