Hitchcock insisted that Bernard Herrmann write the score for Psycho despite the composer's refusal to accept a reduced fee for the film's lower budget. The resulting score, according to Christopher Palmer in The Composer in Hollywood (1990) is "perhaps Herrmann's most spectacular Hitchcock achievement." Hitchcock was pleased with the tension and drama the score added to the film, later remarking "33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music." and that “Psycho depended heavily on Herrmann’s music for its tension and sense of pervading doom.” The singular contribution of Herrmann's score may be inferred from the unusual penultimate placement of the composer's name in the film's opening credit sequence, as it is followed only by Hitchcock's directing credit.
Herrmann used the lowered music budget to his advantage by writing for a string orchestra rather than a full symphonic ensemble, contrary to Hitchcock's request for a jazz score. He thought of the single tone color of the all-string soundtrack as a way of reflecting the black-and-white cinematography of the film. The strings play con sordini (muted) for all the music other than the shower scene, creating a darker and more intense effect. Film composer Fred Steiner, in an analysis of the score to Psycho, points out that string instruments gave Herrmann access to a wider range in tone, dynamics, and instrumental special effects than any other single instrumental group would have.
The main title music, a tense, hurtling piece, sets the tone of impending violence, and returns three times on the soundtrack. Though nothing shocking occurs during the first 15–20 minutes of the film, the title music remains in the audience's mind, lending tension to these early scenes. Herrmann also maintains tension through the slower moments in the film through the use of ostinato.
There were rumors that Herrmann had used electronic means, including amplified bird screeches to achieve the shocking effect of the music in the shower scene. The effect was achieved, however, only with violins in a "screeching, stabbing sound-motion of extraordinary viciousness." The only electronic amplification employed was in the placing of the microphones close to the instruments, to get a harsher sound. Besides the emotional impact, the shower scene cue ties the soundtrack to birds. The association of the shower scene music with birds also telegraphs to the audience that it is Norman, the stuffed-bird collector, who is the murderer rather than his mother.
Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith writes that the music for the shower scene is "probably the most famous (and most imitated) cue in film music," but Hitchcock was originally opposed to having music in this scene. When Herrmann played the shower scene cue for Hitchcock, the director approved its use in the film. Herrmann reminded Hitchcock of his instructions not to score this scene, to which Hitchcock replied, "Improper suggestion, my boy, improper suggestion." This was one of two important disagreements Hitchcock had with Herrmann, in which Herrmann ignored Hitchcock's instructions. The second one, over the score for Torn Curtain (1966), resulted in the end of their professional collaboration. A survey conducted by PRS for Music, in 2009, showed that the British public consider the score from 'the shower scene' to be the scariest theme from any film.
To honor the fiftieth anniversary of Psycho, in July 2010, the San Francisco Symphony obtained a print of the film with the soundtrack removed, and projected it on a large screen in Davies Symphony Hall while the orchestra performed the score live. This was previously mounted by the Seattle Symphony in October 2009 as well, performing at the Benaroya Hall for two consecutive evenings.
Several CDs of the film soundtrack have been released, including:
- The 1970s soundtrack recording with Bernard Herrmann conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra [Unicorn CD, 1993].
- The 1997 Varèse Sarabande CD features a re-recording of the complete score performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and conducted by Joel McNeely .
- The 1998 Soundstage Records SCD 585 CD claims to feature the tracks from the original master tapes. However, it has been asserted that the release is a bootleg recording.
- The 2011 Doxy Records DOY650 (Italy) 180 gram LP release of the complete original 1960 score conducted by Herrmann.
|4.||"Marion & Sam"|
|8.||"The Car Lot"|
|24.||"The Search (A)"|
|30.||"The Search (B)"|
|31.||"The First Floor"|