Analysis of Sound and Music in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) – Part 1

Sound and Music in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and its Different Readings.


“If Psycho had been intended as a serious picture, it would have been shown as a clinical case with no mystery or suspense.  The material would have been used as the documentation of the case history.  We’ve already mentioned that total plausibility and authenticity merely add up to a documentary.” – Alfred Hitchcock (1984, p.202).

There is a certain irony present in comparing essays and analyses of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, Psycho; it is rare, if ever, to find a piece of academic writing on any part of the film that doesn’t state at some point how meticulously analysed the film has been.  It’s difficult to imagine the true impact of the film and its music on its original audience since its constant deconstruction has almost become a part of the modern, cinematic experience itself.  The constant analysis of the music is, however, understandable with Sullivan believing that “Herrmann’s music is inseparably linked with the film in the popular imagination; indeed without it, Psycho would probably not exist.” (2006, p.243).

Whether it is the overtly Freudian dialogue that Hitchcock takes up within his narrative, the film’s visual look or the film’s music, there seems to be very little left to find from dissecting the original material.  Chion acknowledges the film’s original reception and its subsequent reappraisal stating “Numerous were those as well, upon the release of Psycho, who criticized the normally subtle and sophisticated Hitchcock for ostensibly being carried away by vulgar gothic effects of the horror genre.” (1999, p.163). Today, we are not only past this stage of post-modern reappraisal but that of a post-analysis era too.  It seems like an appropriate time therefore to begin to look at some of the readings and deconstructions of the film (specifically of its music and sound for this essay), perhaps allowing for new readings to emerge from a cross-pollination of ideas and new contexts.  Contrary to this, Wierzbicki believes that “However much attention musicologists have paid to the score, it seems that the film studies community in general have long found Herrmann’s contribution to Psycho to be elusive.” (2009, p.16).  While wider reading leads this statement to appear obtuse, it does highlight musicologist’s obsession with Herrmann’s influence and the potential for new contexts.

The first section of this essay will concentrate on an essay by Scott Murphy.  “An Audiovisual Foreshadowing in Psycho” breaks down Herrmann’s score into its very basic, musical elements in order to show its somewhat overt relationship with the visuals of Saul Bass’ opening title sequence.  With hints of more psychological elements, it is a basic starting point to look at ideas that come to the fore in the next essay.  “Voices that Lie Within” is a subtly psychoanalytical essay by Ross J. Fenimore.  His focus is far more narrative based, looking at the extra-musical effects that occur when vision allows sound and music to appear from no obvious source.

Both of the pieces of writing overlap in several ways.  Because of the general ease with which Psycho can be take apart through various means of analysis, this is a given for most writing on the film even before narrowing the focus down to its sound and music.  This can be seen heavily in the natural likenesses of the both piece’s conclusions though, as we’ll see, some aspects are not quite agreed on completely.

Herrmann’s score is perhaps one of the most instantly recognisable in the whole of cinema.  While this has made it ripe for critical analysis (as well as general readings of its ties with narrative, mise-en-scène, philosophy and psychology) any new thoughts and readings are now most likely to come from a comparison of the these readings.  Each reading will be assessed for its process, its argument, its merits and its downfalls, perhaps finally allowing a new assessment of this endlessly layered musical score and film.

Part 2.

Adam Scovell

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