Analysis of Sound and Music in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) – Part 2 (An Audiovisual Foreshadowing)

Part 1.

Emphasis on Visual Cues in Scott Murphy’s “An Audiovisual Foreshadowing in Psycho“.

“We can grasp in effect something which, already in nature, appropriates the gaze to the function to which it may be put in the symbolic relation in man.” – Jacques Lacan (1977, p.105).

Scott Murphy’s “An Audiovisual Foreshadowing in Psycho” is already an interesting proposition in the context of its original source book. Found in “Terror Tracks: Music, Sound and Horror Cinema”, it directly follows another essay on the score to Psycho by James Wierzbicki: “Psycho-analysis”.  Read in order, Murphy’s arguments can’t help but feel trying in their attempt to distance themselves from Wierzbicki’s even though the probability of the works actually having any sort of reaction to each other is very unlikely.

The relationship between music and image, similarly to our other essay, is the main focus of this essay.  Though this reading is reliant on multiple viewings and analysis, it is also based on a relationship of unconscious prediction between the sound, music and image, hence “foreshadowing”.  This reading requires a far more extensive and detailed look at both Herrmann’s music and even a deeply analytical look at Saul Bass’ title sequence and its movement in conjunction with the music.

Murphy sets the scenario of the film up, building up a story of viewers queuing up to see the film for the first time: “In June 1960, throngs of moviegoers waited in line to see Alfred Hitchcock’s new film Psycho, the relatively low-budget “chiller-thriller” that would steer plenty of people away from their showers and plenty revenue into the studio’s coffers.” (2009, p.47).  It seems academics of all leanings wish deeply to have witnessed the film and music in its original, thrilling context.  On the other hand, this distance from the film’s initial shock does allow space for their, sometimes excessive, analysis.  The trajectories of Hitchcock’s story and the visuals of Saul Bass’ opening titles are analysed deeply but the context of the story with which they “foreshadow” is greatly assumed.

Murphy’s main argument is that Psycho‘s opening credits, and Herrmann’s score to accompany them, set the tone for the film meaning that the only possible occurrence that can really happen after them is something horrific.  This stance means that every chordal change, every slight movement of the title letters in Bass’ comes to signify a collaboration of foreshadowing, specifically the prediction of a disjointed personality: “But, of course, both title music and images are quite abstract in Psycho, and thus perfectly qualified to set a general dynamic tone of what is to follow, while leaving specific narrative details alone.” (2009, p.49).

This is where Murphy’s reading becomes somewhat convenient.  His musical analysis of the “Hitchcock chord” is extremely detailed and appropriate as it is linked to the movements of the letter “P” in Bass’ disjointed title sequence.  “The structure of the “Hitchcock chord” itself considerably augments the unsettling quality of the prelude.” (2009, p.50) is tied to the idea that “the transformations of the “Psycho chord” and the transformations of the word “psycho” share several structural features…” (2009, p.52) which he then goes on to argue detail.   Yet all of this detail seems to be based on one idea; that of foreshadowing the manipulated structure of Norman Bates’ emotional identity and psychotic state.  Murphy shows that the ties can indeed be read, showing how both the chord and the design transform and morph, yet it seems so detailed and outlandish that it can’t help but feel excessive.  Linking in David Cooper’s theory of audiovisual “isomorphism”, Murphy argues that he prefers to use “isomorphism as a means to an end, supporting an interpretation that both the musical and the visual contents of the titles foreshadow the climax of the film, where Norman’s psychological abnormalities are revealed.” (2009, p.53).

Murphy’s essay is therefore a perfect representation of modern analyses on Hitchcock.  It is detailed and well argued but verges on the point of ludicrous at times as the relationships it professes to have greater meaning, often had very little time during their very creation to be thought of in such academic terms. He feels the need to address this point, stating that he isn’t bothering to explore “inference of influence” (2009, p.53) but he can’t help but at least evoke it through his choice of emphasis.  It therefore feels far more of a personal reading than its in-depth musical analysis probably initially signifies to the reader.

The weakest arguments of Murphy’s come from when the article delves more into the psychoanalytical side.   Instead of a more typical Freudian reading, Murphy references the work of Robert Samuels who applied Lacanian theory to Psycho.  This in itself automatically opens new territory while simultaneously arguing more deeply for previous thoughts.  Lacan’s Real, Imaginary and Symbolic sit far more comfortably within Psycho and Murphy takes full advantage of this when tying in his musical analysis to the fragmentation of the word “psycho”.

Taking Samuels’ idea of the melding of “two psychic places” within the character of Norman Bates, the previous analysis of music and image is used to reflect this as well as exhibit the fragmentary nature of Bates’ character and predict its eventual reveal and release: “Bates’ character brings a horrific corporeal Reality to mental Symbols: instead of preserving the Symbolic memory of his mother, he preserves her Real corpse; instead of experiencing and then Symbolically purging guilty thoughts that stem from sexual desire, he Really murders the object of desire.” (2009, p.54).  Murphy believes he has already achieved this reasoning for Bass’ titles and uses the rest of his essay to focus on arguing for the same logic to be applied to the chordal sequences that accompany it.  “Therefore, Herrmann’s manipulation and contextualisation of the “Psycho chord” in the main title may be interpreted as a musical manifestation of Norman’s psychosis, as diagnosed by Lacan-cum-Samuels.” (2009, p.55) is how he sums up the point.  By also using Brown’s idea of the “Hitchcock chord” (which he later terms the “Psycho chord”) as an example of a morphing structure, it allows Murphy to argue for a foreshadowing of Bates’ psychological state to be found within the very notes of the chord itself, as well as the subsequent manipulation of these notes that come to define a change in state of mind (from Norman to the psychotic mother, from harmonic resolution to “Hitchcock chord” dissonance).

The dissonance in itself is an interesting aspect that Murphy picks up on, if only because it is the dissonance of the “Psycho chord” that becomes the main tonic harmony of the piece; Norman’s psyche will never fully resolve back to a major resolution.  It will instead always veer back to the dissonance of the psychotic mother and the “Hitchcock chord”: “Even though the “Hitchcock chord” is itself a dissonant sonority, its conspicuous appearances at the beginning, the end and throughout the prelude – as a kind of Doric column supporting the overall musical form – promotes it to the status of tonic harmony for the main title” (2009, p.51).

Similarly to Fenimore’s, the overall arguments are too all encompassing to not need some sort of safety net argument to account for exceptions.  This occurs within this section of the argument when Murphy states that “Admittedly, the voice-leading resolutions of the Real and the Symbolic are only identical (one note stays fixed, and two notes move up) when the key is D major…” (2009, p.55).  The Lacanian reading, though clearly very poignant and enlightening when considering the narrative contexts in Samuels’ original work, seems stretched within Murphy’s to accommodate a very irrational and eccentric piece of scoring.

Murphy’s ending of the essay has similar issues though is refreshing for ending his analysis before the murder within the narrative: “Immediately thereafter, through her wiper-swept windshield, Marion makes out the sign for the Bates Motel – where Norman and his psychotic blurring of the Symbolic and the Real await.” (2009, p.57).  Even towards his last and final argument, before setting the scenario up of the future of Marion, he still needs to cover the lack of cohesion between the Lacanian arguments and the musical analysis.  He argues that “the Symbolic and Real treatments of the “Psycho chord” come into their closest correspondence.” (2009, p.57) but this really does his excellent and detailed musical analysis no real justice.  For such time to be spend on the analysis of music and image, it seems stretched to include this Lacanian argument and, in the end, is weaker for trying to include it when the essay really did not need it. Even in Alan Sheridan’s translation notes of Lacan, he suggests that the terms are flowing; “As distinguished by Lacan, these three dimensions are, as we say, profoundly heterogeneous.” (1977, p.280). For a theory that is so openly diverse, Murphy’s transmuting of them onto something as firm as a musical score was never going to fully succeed.

Part 3.

Adam Scovell

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