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."
The Suite, assembled by the composer in the 1960s, closely follows the film’s narrative: Marion’s impulsive theft of $40,000 from her Phoenix employer; her meeting with Norman and her subsequent murder; Norman’s disposal of her body; the slaughter of the detective on her trail; and Norman’s capture and incarceration, in a cell where he chillingly assures us in a final voice-over that he "wouldn’t hurt a fly."
Note 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 recipient of the Deems Taylor Award for writing on music. He is currently a writer/producer on the A&E television series Biography.