Known by many as the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock proves he’s earned this nickname with each of his horror films. In Psycho, he succeeds once again in feeding off human emotions with various aspects of filmmaking. For this film in particular, sound plays a major role in keeping audiences on the edge of their seats.
Hitchcock juxtaposes complex psyches with simple music and a black and white layout. The single tone color of an all-string orchestra reflects the black and white images and matches the strained tone of the film. Hitchcock manages to retain suspense in the slower portions of the film, such as when the main character steals a large sum of cash. As Marion leaves town with said cash in her passenger seat, the fast-paced violin sounds create a flurry of nerves, and audiences can practically feel her stomach churning. This musical style reappears any time Marion handles the stolen money, revealing the fear and tentativeness she feels for her impulsive actions. A similar musical scheme is used when Marion’s sister, Lila, sees Norman approaching when she’s inside the Bates’ house. The curt violin sounds reflect the sister’s sudden panic as she searches for a place to hide.
Though the soundtrack has great success retaining tension in the slower portions through ostinato—a technique in which each note has the same stress as the last—the film’s true victory is the birth of an infamous violin combination. A combination so shocking that it has become synonymous with horror. This horrifying violin-centered sequence keeps eardrums ringing with each high-pitched strain. Hitchcock uses screeching violins in the film’s most intense scenes. The first of these scenes is when Marion takes a shower in her motel bathroom. The scene starts out quiet, and audiences can relate to the feeling of vulnerability as they hear the familiar sounds of water running down the drain and the surrounding stillness just outside the shower curtain. Even as the murderer approaches, the music doesn’t start until the curtain is ripped aside and the dagger is raised, revealing “mother’s” cruel intentions. Shrieking violins accompany Marion’s screams, and viewers can hear the sound of the knife slicing through her flesh. The screeching violins actually resemble a bird’s shrill call, which may hint to Norman who admits his hobby is stuffing dead birds.
In addition to Marion, the P.I., Arbogast also finds himself a victim of Norman’s twisted personality. As Arbogast approaches the Bates’ house, he’s accompanied only by dull cello sounds. The music changes to high pitched violin chords when the detective enters the house, signifying that Arbogast has put himself in a risky situation. The violins continue to strain as he carefully proceeds up the stairs. When Norman—dressed as his mother—attacks Arbogast, the music returns to its familiar screech and screams out on behalf of the fallen investigator. Audience members can assume the intensified violin sounds signal impending violence. This assumption proves true when Marion’s sister ventures down into the Bates house cellar, where she finds Mrs. Bates sitting in a chair. As Lila approaches the figure in the chair, the music remains relatively consistent, suggesting that Mrs. Bates presents no real danger. When Lila discovers that Norman’s mother is really just a corpse with a wig, the music does not change; but when Lila screams and looks to the cellar door, the violins accompany her screams. This time, the violins sound even before the oncoming danger is present. Despite this slight delay, suspicions are confirmed less than a moment later when Norman runs into the room, wig in place and a dagger in hand.
Psycho emphasizes the importance of not only cinematographic techniques in suspense, but also of sound strategies. Suspense relies heavily on these two facets of film-making, and by utilizing both aspects, Hitchcock manipulates audiences and once again proves his mastery in the art of true horror.