Analysis of Sound and Music in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) – Part 4 (Conclusions)

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. 

Combining the Readings: Similarities, Contradictions and Cross-Over.

“It’s as if the film were pinpointing the very essence of the unfilmable: the entwined couple, monstrous, the two-backed beast of the primal scene, the impossible couple of body and voice.” – Michel Chion (1999, p.149).

While Murphy and Fenimore examine and address different points and issues, their resulting essays not only have a fair number of similarities but also a number of issues that could be said to actually contradict and potentially work against each other.  These moments of cohesion and disparity are no doubt accidental though they are also predictable considering the detail and the fact that they are both studying a very specific work and relationship.

Both of their essays lean heavily towards readings that require knowledge of outside factors.  In other words, these are readings that are academic and not openly stating a basic interpretation.  While Fenimore’s leans towards Chion and the theories of the detached voice, Murphy’s leans towards detailed musical analysis and Lacan. It is safe to say that both of these readings of the film music are far from initial reactions and occupy the realm of post-experience analyses.

The first real meeting point for the two works (and many, many others on the film and its music) is the use of psychoanalytical techniques.  Film as a general medium seems ripe for this sort of analysis; its breakthrough as a mainstream medium was at the same time as the wider availability of Freud (and later Jung), its very nature technically as an experience lends to a feeling of dreams and its narrative structure allows a far greater ease of access to the psychological, inner states of its characters (which it does so through purely aesthetic means).

The two essays use this psychoanalytical stance to argue different points but it is debatable whether the two readings can go together.  While Fenimore’s Chion-heavy reading of the use of sound means that the viewer should be aware of Bates’ psychological state (or at least after several viewings), Murphy sees the potential for this reading to be sought within the film’s opening titles.  Compare Fenimore’s Mother’s Voice argument to Murphy’s Symbolic idea: “Mother’s voice is a lie.” (2010, p.89) and “Bates’ character brings a horrific corporeal Reality to mental Symbols…” (2009, p.54).  If both of these were considered to be correct, it would seem that the film would be overemphasising its core message; something Hitchcock himself would probably avoid at all costs.  That’s not to say that a Lacanian reading of the music cannot sit with an acousmatic one (indeed, Lacan’s Imaginary, Symbolic and Real theories arguably sits better with Fenimore’s argument than with Murphy’s: Lacan believes that “Unreal is not imaginary.” (1977, p.205) which is a perfect summation of Hitchcock’s treatment of Bates and his soundworld.) but when put together in this way, the two seem to jar and struggle for hierarchy.

The division between the two essays on what parts of the music they choose to dissect is also of interest.  Murphy is following Herrmann’s lead by arguing that the key to the film is within the opening sequence’s chords and therefore devotes all of his time to explaining the movement of the progressions –  “This essay, however naively, grants Herrmann the benefit of the doubt, and proposes a way of reading the film and analysing the structure of both the aural and visual components of the main title that supports his claim.” (2009, p.49). Fenimore’s is polar in that it looks at whole swaths of the score and sound, moving backwards and forwards within the narrative in order to try and find key elements that share a likeness to his ideas of the detached voice.

Logically, a more detailed approach such as Murphy’s would seem to be most desired way of exploring the music yet Fenimore’s seems far more effective in defining his argument. Whereas Murphy almost backs himself into a corner with emphasis on the importance of the opening sequence music (to the point where he drags Lacan in to diversify his and Herrmann’s blasé argument), Fenimore is deliberately haphazard with his musical and sound choices as to provide examples that back up his arguments rather than vice-versa.

This means that, though Murphy’s detail on his chosen section is extremely effective in itself, it feels less effective in regards to an overall argument (the fact that he describes his own endeavour “naively” (2009, p.49) suggests he is at least aware of the rigidity of his commitment).  Fenimore’s lightly touching upon several segments may have its downfalls (as previously stated, the need to explain away discrepancies is one of the piece’s weaknesses) but its argument seems far more focussed on his idea rather than rigidly bound to the original text.

Both pieces provide ample new material and views to discuss Psycho.  While they go about it in different ways, they both end within the narrative of the film; focussing on the eventual fate of the characters as a lead out of their ideas (the subsequent murder in Murphy’s, the incarceration of Bates in Fenimore’s).  This implies that both of their ideas have consequences or at least consequences that are reflected within the film’s narrative.  Murphy’s actually comes out strongest on this front though still relies heavily on the importance of the film’s opening sequence and music; there’s a large leap of faith in allowing this sequence to predict a character’s mental state.

This is the final, essential difference between the two pieces.  Murphy sees the musical analysis as a gradual hinting at the psychotic state of a main character that can be grasped early if analysed and broken down (much like the character is at the end of the film).  Fenimore on the other hand sees music and sound (more specifically how it used) as a symptom of the psychosis and mental states within the narrative.  His reading does seem to argue that Herrmann’s music (and the voice sound diegsis) is part of this fallout and, unlike Murphy’s theory, is not simply a prediction of what is to come.


“Psycho has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating.  I was directing the viewers.  You might say I was playing them, like an organ.” – Alfred Hitchcock (1984, p.269).

One of this essay’s hopeful outcomes was to use the two pieces of work as a gateway to gain greater understanding of Alfred Hitchcock’s film.  While it is debatable whether any new meaning has been attained, the two pieces in question have shown how dramatically different a reading of a film and its music can be.  For any number of modern film scores, it wouldn’t be too outlandish to believe that readings and analyses from several scholars and critics would share a number of stark resemblances.  Perhaps it is a fitting tribute then to the work of Hitchcock, Herrmann and Bass that people are still dissecting their work (a work which their own craftsman type relationship probably meant that little thought of the analyses really went in) and finding all sorts of personal meanings and receptions.

Though Fenimore’s “Voices That Lie Within” was shown to have some discrepancies and weaknesses, it came out as the stronger of the two pieces.  While reading back on the work, it occurred that there was an actual reason for this favouring.  Unlike Murphy’s piece, Fenimore’s gives the overall impression that his ideas are of a personal reception. In spite of using the analysis of music to argue his points, its presence only seems to be one of bookmarking where his ideas actually occur: “It is the very same E-flat that will return to assault our protagonist only a few moments later:  “Herrmann sharpens Norman’s knife.” (2010, p.93).

Murphy’s “An Audiovisual Foreshadowing in Psycho on the other hand, seems determined to find some inner mechanism that can transcribed (both musically and in the movement of design) to prove his opinion.  In reality, like in all of the readings of Psycho and its score, Murphy’s is just as much as a personal reception as anyone else’s; “I claim that the “Psycho chord” of Herrmann’s main title also participates in a similar conflation.” (2009, p.54) and sentences like it do of course hint that this could be a reception.  Perhaps his model of argument was not intended to come across in such a scientific light yet its cold dissection of the chords and letters leaves the feeling of a calculated endpoint rather than a flowing debate.  Readings that require the eventual reaching of this endpoint by the reader will always falter when dealing with such an effusive medium as audiovisual media.

Instead of opening up a new reading for Psycho, it has opened up criteria for reading the readings.  As previously stated, Psycho is one of the most analysed films in the history of cinema and its score is equally as analysed.  While the analyses of the film now seem saturated by sheer volume, Murphy’s in particular shows that combining previous ideas for breaking down the film can find new avenues of thought even if there is an eventual dead end.  Both essays have their merits but analysis of them has shown that, no matter how calculated and precise a compositional analysis can be, a personal reception of the relationship between an idea, a reading and the text will always produce far more interpretative results.

Adam Scovell


Brown, R, S., 1994. Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music. University of California Press. Berkley.

Chion, M., 1999. The Voice in Cinema (translated by Claudia Gorbman).  Columbia University Press. New York.

Cooper, D., 2005. The Ghost and Mrs Muir: A Film Score Guide. Scarecrow Press. New York.

Fenimore, R, J., 2010. Voices That Lie Within from Music in the Horror Film: Listening To Fear. Routledge. New York.

Lacan, J., 1977. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (translated by Alan Sheridan). The Hogarth Press and Institution of Psycho-Analysis. London.

Murphy, S., 2009. An Audiovisual Foreshadowing in Psycho from Terror Tracks: Music, Sound and Horror Cinema. Equinox Publishing. London.

Samuels, R., 1998. Hitchcock’s Bi-Textuality: Lacan, Feminism and Queer Theory. University of New York Press. New York.

Sullivan, J., 2006. Hitchcock’s Music. Yale University. USA.

Truffaut, F., 1984. Hitchcock/Truffaut: Dialogue between Truffaut and Hitchcock. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. New York.

Wierzbicki, J., 2009. Psycho-Analysis: Form and Function in Bernard Herrmann’s Music for Hitchcock’s Masterpiece from Terror Tracks: Music, Sound and Horror Cinema. Equinox Publishing. Lo

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