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Warning! This writeup may contain spoilers! Read at your own risk.

The Soundtrack

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is generally thought to be one of the Master's greatest accomplishments. Equally as respected is its score, composed by Bernard Herrmann. The score was written for an ensemble consisting entirely of strings (they couldn't afford an entire orchestra) and has been endlessly imitated and parodied.

Herrmann used the leitmotif technique heavily in this score. Like Richard Wagner, the prolific composer who is believed to have invented leitmotif, Herrmann wove his leading themes together to form subtle connections in the mind of the viewer. Thanks to Herrmann's skillful use of leitmotif, viewers made connections on a subconscious level that weren't necessarily being presented in the dialogue or with the visuals.

The madness motif

Perhaps the most easily-recognized motif in the entire film consists of three notes played in the low register. Herrmann used this motif to represent madness and the loss of Norman Bates' sanity. The motif is first presented during the conversation between Norman and Marion Crane in the parlour of the Bates Motel. Norman has explained how he cares for his ailing mother; Marion suggests that he make other arrangements for her. As Norman's usually cheerful disposition darkens, he asks if she means an institution. At this, the film's first explicit mention of insanity, the score darkens considerably. The "madness motif" is heard here; the melody climbs on the second note and descends to the third. The motif's ultimate descent may symbolize a descent into madness. This connection is important, as the conversation eventually goes on to include Norman's thoughts about insanity and whether or not his mother actually poses a threat to anyone.

This motif is repeated at several other points during the film, most notably at its conclusion. At this point, Norman has been placed in a mental institution and his mother's personality has overtaken him. The viewers hear an inner monologue as Norman sits by himself; his "mother" bemoans his loss of sanity and insists that she's really harmless. As the monologue concludes, the three-note motif is first played by the violins and violas, and then eventually by the cellos and basses in the same way it was originally introduced.

A quiet variation on the "madness motif" (with a similar melody but played in the higher register) is heard earlier in the film, as Marion loses her head momentarily and steals $40,000 from her workplace. An underlying point of this theme shows that Norman and Marion are not quite as different as they might seem.

John Williams quoted this motif in Star Wars, just as Han Solo, Luke, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Chewbacca enter the Death Star through a smuggling port. As Han opens the hatch that allows them access to the Death Star's main floor, the three-note motif is heard. This is extremely appropriate, since Han thinks they're insane to be doing what they're doing.

The murder motifs

There are two different murder motifs in Herrmann's score. The first is doubtlessly the film's most famous musical phrase, and is first heard during the famous 'shower scene.' Herrmann used violins playing short, sharp notes in their highest register to simulate the stabbing of knives and shrill, high pitched screaming. The motif is used again during Arbogast's murder, and Norman's attempted murder of Lila. This motif was obviously meant to represent death and murder -- it's the similar theme that follows the first after the shower scene that employs the technique of leitmotif more thoroughly. This submotif is also played by the violins, and like the original, is also played in the extreme high register. The difference lies in the length and the fluidity of the notes; these notes are just as sharp and unnerving as those of the first motif. They are not played staccato, however, and blend together more. The high register still references death and connects the attack itself to the moments that proceed it. The crime and its aftermath are still there -- but the screams have been turned into anxiety.

The second "murder motif" is a direct reference to the "madness motif" -- it too is played in the low register and is used to distinguish the attacks from the deaths they cause. This motif consists of a series of two-note phrases. The first note is shorter than the second, and descends to the note an octave below it. This may also be an allusion to the descent into madness that might drive someone to commit murder. It is first heard as Marion's attacker leaves the bathroom and she falls to the floor, dead. It is also played as Arbogast's attacker corners him at the bottom of the Bates' staircase and stabs him repeatedly.

The anxiety motif

This motif is first heard in the music that accompanies the opening credits. It begins with a high register part by the violins which eventually fades into a nervous melody by the violas. As the violas play this melody, the violins play a motif similar to the "murder (attack) motif" -- foreshadowing what's to come. The melody played by the violas creates the feeling of anxiety by alternating between major and minor keys; the first part of the melody borrows heavily from a major ascending and descending scale while the second part is similar but more like a minor ascending and descending scale. This lack of consistency creates the feeling of anxiety.

It's clear that Herrmann intended this motif to reflect anxiety by the way he uses it later on in the film. After Marion has stolen the money from her office, she attempts to go see her boyfriend, Sam. Her boss sees her driving in the opposite direction from the bank (where she was supposed to be going to deposit the money) and she realizes that she might get caught. As she continues to drive, the music from the opening credits is played in the background. It is explicitly paired with her anxiety; viewers can hear her thoughts as she imagines what people are saying about her. An encounter with a police officer and her attempt to trade in her car quickly while avoiding suspiscion only cause her anxiety to build. The fact that the rain is preventing her from seeing where she's going doesn't help. Once she sees the Bates Motel, the music (and subsequently the motif) stops, indicating (rather ironically) that this "stability" means she won't be nervous anymore.

The motif is repeated as Arbogast travels the city questioning motel owners as to whether or not they've seen Marion, who had been missing for several days at this point. It is now Lila and Sam who are anxious (about Marion's safety) and the inconsistency of the scales in the viola melody reflect the amount of moving around Arbogast is doing to try to get some answers. The reference to the murder motif by the violins (played over the viola melody) may also serve to foreshadow Arbogast's own murder.

Other motifs

A pattern that seems to exist is Herrmann's use of the low register to deal with issues and themes of great severity. The low register was used to deal with issues like madness and death. The high register was also used to deal with death, but in a more instantaneous fashion. The high register motifs often consists of shorter notes, whereas the low register motifs use longer notes. This may also be a reference to the long lasting effects of the issues illustrated by the motifs in the low register -- madness will often last longer than anxiety, though anxiety might lead to madness.


Bernard Herrmann used leitmotif frequently in his score for Psycho. By doing this he made several connections for the viewer that were not explicitly stated in the script or through the cinematography. Because of the implicit nature of these connections, the viewer might not even be aware that this connections exist and may only acknowledge them on an extremely subconscious level. This created a more multi-dimensional film experience, and is one of the reasons why Herrmann's score is generally considered to be one of the best of all time.
Works Cited:
I've seen this movie at least a hundred times and own the soundtrack.
Bernard Herrmann: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Herrmann Accessed: June 21, 2004.

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