Shivers and Sighs: Column: Slicing Score: Psycho (1960)

By Maria Mitchell

Psycho (1960). Composed and conducted by Bernard Herrmann.

Conflicts between familial love and romantic love are familiar for many characters in cinema. No matter what type of love is being expressed, all love has a common denominator: devotion. For Norman Bates, the conflict was which did he harbor a greater devotion to: his mother or a woman he physically desired? The gravity and severity of devotion can twist a person’s mind into hideous convolutions. It is the severity of Psycho’s brutal score that emphasizes this point.

Since the brutality of the strings in Psycho’s murder scenes are already legendary, let’s take some time to look at the softer side of this score because, severity aside, Psycho’s score isn’t without its tranquil, sentimental and sensual moments. The fullest of the latter is cued during the late-afternoon tryst between Marian Crane and Sam Loomis, in the opening scene following the main titles. There is no sentimentality in its slow, swaying strings. The cue is lazy and earthy. This cue is an odd follow up to the brutality of the main titles, but it’s that oddity that helps make Psycho’s score a dazzling rush of emotions. Sam and Marian’s cue helps the viewers disregard the shock they are made to feel from the main theme’s gripping terror because now, we have music playing that is anything but threatening. Its base nature lulls the audience, like an interlude of Valium, in order to prepare them to be terrified afresh, as the cues follow the suspense of Marian Crane’s theft from her employer and her headlong flight to California.

What of Mother’s theme? Towards the end of the film, we hear the fullest cue that fleshes out Norman’s mother’s ghost: the cue entitled “The Toys”, which follows Vera Miles (Crane’s sister), looking for evidence pertaining to her sister’s disappearance in Norman’s house and stumbling upon Norman’s old possessions from childhood. Possessions given to him by his mother. This melody, while also slow like Sam and Marian’s cue, is anything but base or sensual. It’s wistful and delicate, like a mist. It’s the memory of better moments in Norman and his mother’s life together. Beautiful cues like this one dramatically emphasize why music is such a successful asset to film: it gives the viewer exposition that the rest of the film cannot. We don’t get to see Norman and his mother in a peaceful, happy setting in Psycho. All the audience knows of the better times they once had is what they can glean from this cue.

Bernard Herrmann was a regular composer for The Twilight Zone and, while the episode “Nothing in the Dark” cites no specific composer for its soundtrack, a cue I’m confident is Herrmann’s is played towards the end of the episode and is nearly identical to Vera’s cue from Psycho. “Nothing in the Dark” is a story that details the intense fear an old woman has of dying. The similar cue plays when Death (played by Robert Redford) convinces her to take his hand and she learns death can be a peaceful, happy experience.

Herrmann wasn’t just recycling music in different soundtracks for convenience. Both cues evoke something unseen and intangible, but very powerful: life that exists no longer in a physical form, but exists, regardless. Some people’s lives appear more powerful once they’ve passed away and that is the point made by Herrmann’s sweeping cues in both Psycho and “Nothing in the Dark”. The reason is because their suffering is over. In the case of Psycho, however, Mrs. Bates’ suffering is over because Norman’s is just beginning. Norman still is burdened with devotion to his mother, and that devotion squashes everything else in his life and drags him down to madness which leads to murder.

Herrmann opted not to write any lush, romantic music for any of the scenes between Norman Bates and Marian Crane because, even though Norman feels attraction to her, the feeling isn’t requited. So, romantic music would have been unintentionally comical…especially since Norman makes the first-date faux pas of stabbing his crush to death in the shower. Ah, the first stab of love isn’t always so brutal, thankfully.

Bio: Maria Mitchell is a writer of dark fiction who reviews film scores that pulse with a beat to match.

Psychos score is available through Amazon.com.