BY THE LATE 1950s, FILMMAKER ALFRED HITCHCOCK WAS SICK OF making big budget movies. According to IMDB, he wanted to "experiment with the more efficient, sparser style of television filmmaking. [And for Psycho] he ultimately used a crew consisting mostly of TV veterans and hired actors less well known than those he usually used."
Keeping the lower budget in mind for the soundtrack, composer Bernard Herrmann used a minimal orchestra, using only the strings without any winds, brass, or percussion. For the movie's infamous shower scene, Hitchcock instructed Herrmann not to compose anything at all; Hitchcock wanted that scene to be completely silent.
Herrmann was otherwise inspired however and it's interesting think of how the idea to go against Hitchcock's wishes might have come to him. As someone who thinks in terms of music, I imagine he thought about what instrument could physically convey the action of stabbing and would the resulting sound be appropriately threatening.
Whatever Herrmann's inspiration, he was right to trust his instincts. Hitchcock immediately changed his thoughts when he saw the footage with the music. From Orchestra Hall's program notes:
When legendary director Alfred Hitchcock advised composer Bernard Herrmann
on the specifics of scoring his thriller Psycho, he insisted that the composer not
write any music for the now-famous shower scene, in which
Janet Leigh is knifed to death by a shadowy figure at a roadside motel.
The always irascible Herrmann—who by now had already scored five Hitchcock
films, including Vertigo and North by Northwest—ignored Hitchcock’s advice and
wrote murder music anyway. While mixing the film, Herrmann played his
“backup music” for the shower scene, and Hitchcock immediately approved the
choice. “But you requested that we not add any music there,” the composer pointed
out. “Improper suggestion, my boy,” the director replied.
I had the opportunity to see the soundtrack performed live as the movie played on the big screen at Orchestra Hall on October 30, 2010. It is the 50th anniversary of Psycho and, to coincide with Halloween, Orchestra Hall celebrated by turning the stage over to the big screen and the appropriately sized orchestra -- sans percussion.
I had never seen this movie from beginning to end. Of course I knew Norman Bates had mommy issues, the status of his mommy, and I have seen in its entirety the infamous shower scene. Because I had already seen the shower scene, I focused my attention on the orchestra while it played through this scene. The movement on stage was almost as alarming as the action on screen. How exciting! The entire violin section was in motion, their bows violently bobbing into the air only to immediately thrust back down over the strings. It was quite thrilling to hear and see such a famous soundtrack performed in person.
One last note: What made the evening even more fun was the fact that the staff were all dressed as Norman Bates-as-his-mom, and the musicians were dressed in various costumes as well. Sarah Hicks, the conductor, began the evening in a shower cap and bathrobe (she made sure to put on the shower cap right before the shower scene), and after intermission she had on a gray wig and floral-print dress, just like Norman's mom. Oh, she also had a larger than life prop knife -- it looked like she was going to conduct with it, but decided to go with her wand after all.