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Joel McNeely and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra

With Psycho (1960), Herrmann crafted what is arguably his most psycho-(no pun intended) logically disturbing score for what is arguably Hitchcock's most psychologically disturbing film.  He made the bold move of using strictly a string ensemble to complement the stark black and white photography.  The score itself, while showing Herrmann's usual excellent composition skills, simply isn't very exciting to listen to all the way through.  Except for the Prelude, The Murder, and a few other cues, most of the other cues are large collections of quiet dissonant chords.  It worked wonders in the movie, but it takes a serious fan to listen to the entire thing of his or her own free will.  I found the conductor's score, which really makes listening to it more worthwhile.  The CD I'm using here is Joel McNeely's 1997 rerecording with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra done for Varese's excellent series of score recordings.  Instead of going by Herrmann's slow rerecording or the movie, McNeely strictly follows the conductor's score, which makes it more exciting than either of Herrmann's recordings.  The string ensemble's performance is unrivaled, packing an unprecedented amount of ferocity, especially in the bass. Seriously, some places, particularly the Prelude, sound as if the players are physically attacking their instruments trying to wring the sound out of them.  Herrmann would be proud!  Special mention must be made about Kevin Mulhall's excellent liner notes, which go into minute detail on the score while giving the movie's synopsis.

Track by Track Analysis:
1. Prelude (1:55)
Herrmann's visceral Prelude, one of his most driving and exciting, introduces 4 main motives.  It begins with a series of minor 7th string chords which then bring in a 2/4 ostinato.  The main melody is then introduced, which is a series of triplets followed by an echoing set of chromatic chords.  A second motif, a chopping syncopated effect, makes a quick appearance, with the bass part being a pizzicato note on the off-beat.  The introduction comes back, now with another new motif on the viola - a bass part to add to the ostinato.  The next section is a soaring quarter note section accompanied by both tremolo strings and an extension of the pulsing ostinato.  These three sections play in their entirety a few more times.  Herrmann subtlely varies some of the accompaniment - the most obvious being a fast triplet figure in the violins going with the main quarter note melody.  At the end, the triplet introduction reaches a climax, and this ferocious prelude ends rather mildly on a low D.

2. The City (2:12)
This introduces another main theme, one of the most subtle in the Herrmann canon.  Each phrase is made up of 1) a collection of eight dissonant descending chords. 2) a reactionary cadence. 3) eight rising dissonant chords 4) the cadence again, except going up.  This pattern repeats once, and ends on a dissonant chord.  All logic tells me this cue should bore me to death, but I love listening to it - it gives almost a morbid sense of contentment.

3. Marion (1:36)
4. Marion and Sam (1:52)
I combined these 2 cues since they're both based on the same motif.  That motif is an uncomfortable arching violin motif for Marion, which works its way down the scale.

5. Temptation (2:51)
In this, yet another new theme is introduced: a descent down the chromatic scale beginning on a high C accompanied by another uneasy alternating figure.  Since it's repeated ad infinitum, you'd think it would get purely monotonous (and it does, to some extent) but Herrmann does 2 things to keep it interesting.  First, he throws around an alternating slur/stacatto pattern, and second, he varies the positions of rests in the figure.

6. Flight (1:07)
7. Patrol Car (1:04)
These 2 cues are exactly the same.  They're both short recaps of the Prelude motives, except they're not repeated as much and there's a different ending: the short intro minor sevenths enter, but don't go like usual, ending on an offbeat.

8. The Car Lot (1:45)
This is exactly the same as "The City."

9. The Package (1:31)
We get more of the Temptation theme, except Herrmann varies it even more by alternating between pizzicato (plucked) and regular (bowed).

10. The Rainstorm (3:09)
Appropriately, the last statement of the Prelude material for a long time is the longest yet.  McNeely slows down the material and keeps us guessing by always leaving out the second syncopated motif until the very end (it's crossed out on the score.)

11. The Hotel Room (2:04)
More Temptation theme.

12. The Window (1:13)
We return to the City theme.  Now it's got the same high notes as the original, but different chord progressions.

13. The Parlour (1:37)
The City theme again.  I know what you're thinking, that this must be the most boring score on earth, but now Herrmann gives us a new element to it.  He adds a syncopated figure for 2 violas.  That may not sound like much, but it really adds a new hypnotic, obsessive air to the theme.

14. The Madhouse (1:54)
After all these repeats, it must be time for a new theme, right?  Yep, and this is by far the most dissonant, modernistic, and downright disturbing motif in the entire score.  It's based on a slow triplet figure and chromatic transitory passage.

15. The Peephole (3:00)
Now Herrmann takes the new syncopated figure from the City theme and gives it its own cue, basing it on more chromatic chords.

16. The Bathroom (1:02)
Another appearance of the second half of the new City theme.

17. The Murder (1:03)
Do you honestly know anyone in the U.S. who's never heard this cue?  Anyway, it's a chopping motif in 3/2 time joined by several dissonant chromatic scale chords.  After being played once, it's played again, now with glissandi added.  A short coda (my favorite part of the cue) features a dissonant chord progressing repeated several times, alternating between pizzicato and bowed.

18. The Body (:15)
A short recap of the murder motif, now in 1/4 time.  Instead of being a slashing figure, it's now got tremolo effects.  There were actually two versions of this composed, the alternate being a normal presentation of the murder motif, except in 4/2 time.  A question: on the very last note, it's got a fermata, but next to it the words "not long" are written.  What gives?

19. The Office (1:20)
This actually has 2 sections.  The first shows more of Herrmann's genious: it's got the murder motif, played quietly and in a lower key, followed by tremolo figures.  The second section is a short upward passage.

20. The Curtain (1:15)
That disguised murder motif is back, now in 3/4 (although it only plays on beats 1 & 2.)  He mixes up the pizzicato effect again, making it much more interesting to listen to.  Above this is a simple descending high violin section.

21. The Water (1:46)
More new material, this time a bass glissando followed by ongoing trills and varied three note tremolo figures.

22. The Car (:52)
Now the melody moves to the bass, with the accompaniment being B notes in the violins with their octaves alternated.

23. Cleanup (2:14)
A longer version of the Water theme.  As always, he varies the octaves, instruments, and notes to convey essentially the same meaning, but to stay interesting.

24. The Swamp (2:03)
A recap of the disturbing "Madhouse" thematic material.

25. The Search (:41)
We're finally back to the Prelude, now just the first section.  It's played much more delicately and the melody is varied somewhat.

26. The Shadow (:50)
We now return to the Madhouse themes.

27. Phone Booth (:53)
Some new material, although partly based on the Madhouse, appears.  Like always, Herrmann varies the pizzicato, and the cue ends with a creepy ascending melody line.

28. The Porch (1:04)
Based on a conglomeration of 3-note passages.

29. The Stairs (2:58)
It opens with a recap of the 2nd section of The Office, and then goes to more of the Madhouse theme, now followed by an intriguing triplet figure.  The final page is a soaring, extremely disturbing melody for the violin's highest register.

30. The Knife (:27)
The Murder motif returns!  It's just the second glissando section and the coda, except played twice as fast.

31. The Search (B) (1:39)
More of the City theme, with its now usual syncopated ostinato.  I still love this cue, and I have no idea why!

32. The First Floor (2:44)
The reactionary cadence from The City gets a facelift, as well as its own cue, at least for a while.  The second section is a rising part that goes from the lowest bass register up to the highest violin.  An extended dissonant chord forms the final part.

33. Cabin 10 (1:07)
Herrmann now puts us in 7/4 time with a series of more dissonant string chords (so what's new?)

34. Cabin 1 (1:05)
Cabin 10's theme gets played again.

35. The Hill (1:03)
This has a violin descending down the chromatic scale with a gradually building ostinato in the bass.

36. The Bedroom (:59)
Oooh, our tempo marking's up to, get this, Andante! Can you believe it?  Not Lento sostenuto, not Grave, not Moderato, but Andante!  Sorry.  Anyway, this has a pulsing low E in the bass & an upward moving melody in the treble.

37. The Toys (1:01)
That low E is back, but now the strings get descending fifths.

38. The Cellar (1:06)
Finally, we're out of the darkness & get a full-fledged action cue.  It's basically racing low tremolo strings which mix and mingle of their own free will.

39. Discovery (:41)
As if the previous cue wasn't enough, we get yet another action cue, marked Allegro feroce.  This is a prime example of the string players attacking their instruments, especially in the high pounding ostinato near the end.

40. Finale (1:32)
A recap of some of the stuff we've had before, followed by the most depressing ending I've ever heard in a movie score: the bass playing the triplet Madhouse theme with strings pounding out an insanely dissonant chord.  If you're not committed into a mental hospital for depression yet, you will be!

Whew!  Anyway, it may not be the most exciting or upbeat soundtrack to listen to, but every soundtrack fan needs at least one copy of Psycho.  It shows more of Bernard Herrmann's unprecendented subtlety as a composer, and is one of the more memorable scores from the 20th century.  I'd suggest you get McNeely's performance of it, too.  Also worth looking into is Danny Elfman's rerecorded version of it for the newest incarnation of the movie.  He adds some of his own quirks to the music, and a few of the more tedious cues are left off.

PSYCHO: The Final Score
Music Rating (A. Compositional Skill) 10/10
Music Rating (B. Listenability) 6/10
Packaging/Liner notes 10/10
Orchestral Performance 10/10
Sound Quality 7/10
Length 10/10

Psycho is Copyright 1997 by Varese Sarabande.  Its appearance here is for informational purposes.  Review Copyright 1999 by Andrew Drannon.  All rights reserved.  Opinions here aren't those of Tripod.
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