Skip to page content

About this Piece

“To orchestrate is like a thumbprint. I can’t understand having someone else do it. It would be like someone putting color to your paintings.”

Musically precocious, Bernard Herrmann (b. 1911, New York City; d.1975, North Hollywood) won a composition prize at age 13, founded his own orchestra at age 20, and joined CBS as a staff conductor three years later, eventually becoming Chief Conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra. Through his work at CBS, he met Orson Welles, writing or arranging music for Welles’ radio programs, and then following Welles into films; Citizen Kane was his first film score. Herrmann’s most famous relationship was with Alfred Hitchcock, for whom he scored seven films. His only Academy Award, however, came for William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster. He was widely acclaimed for distinctive orchestration, such as the use of theremins in The Day the Earth Stood Still, or the string scoring for Psycho.

Herrmann’s use of orchestral color was never more ingenious than in this legendary, much-imitated score, written in 1960 for string orchestra only, in which he created what he called a “black and white sound” to mirror Psycho’s stark, black and white images.

Originally, Hitchcock requested that no music be written for the shower murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). Ever true to his own instincts, Herrmann ignored his employer, believing the sequence needed scoring for full impact. According to the composer, at the recording session Hitchcock listened with approval to the score, then expressed regret that he had asked for no music during the shower scene. A beaming Herrmann confessed that he had written something anyway—would Hitch like to hear it? The director listened to the cue, and immediately overruled his own “improper suggestion.”

For decades, film theorists have analyzed the multiple meanings suggested by Herrmann’s shrieking violins, which have been said to reflect the stabbing knife, Marion’s screams, even bird cries that may be a clue to Marion’s killer (taxidermist Norman Bates, who fills his office with dead birds). When asked what he had intended to convey, Herrmann replied with a single word: “Terror.”—Adapted from notes by Steven C. Smith, author of A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann (University of California Press, 1991) and a recipient of the Deems Taylor Award for writing on music.