Sound in Hitchcock`s 1960 Film Psycho

Soundin Hitchcock`s 1960 Film Psycho

Inevery film, the effects of sound is very important as a tool toelicit a particular feeling to the viewer. Some of the feelings thatare particularly conveyed by sound in cinematic techniques aresuspense, terror, and of course romance. Before the advent of modernvisual effects used to bring out feelings of terror, suspense,romance, and others, sound was used as a cinematic expression ofspecific feelings. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, Psychoused sound very effectively to complete the realism that the image onthe screen intended to portray (Bordwell, Janet, and Kristin 13). Infact, music played a significant role in the success of the filmbecause it made it possible for viewers to resonate with the mainthemes of film such as the existence of good and evil. Sound actuallyreplaced the physical presence of a character on the screen as anessential element of mystery and suspense. Sound is actually anoff-screen voice that sends the message to the viewer more deeplythan an image because it coincides with the real expectations of theviewer about what would happen next.

Thescene where Marion was stabbed quintessentially illustrates thistheme. The off-screen voice of Norman Bates is heard shouting,“Mother of God, mother! Blood! Blood!” Norman’s off-screenshouting while addressing his mother creates the assumption in theviewer that he might be Marion’s killer, although the viewer maynot be certain about it. Starving the viewer’s eye from the nextscene of events, automatically activates their ear hence, elicitingall kind of imagination into play. Norman’s voice suggest thepresence of his mother, causing suspense in the mid of the reader onhow she looks like and why he has to say it loud in the wake ofcommitting Marion’s murder (Sterritt 22). The mystery that causesthe suspense is completed by the sound. The core intention was todisturb the audience by suggesting an impending horrific event andbloodshed without actually showing much of it on the screen. BecauseHitchcock filmed the film in black and white so that it fits the grimmood of the story, the producer decided to use monochromatic soundswhere the music is played only by simple string instruments such asthe violin (31). By doing so, Psychocreatedone of the most memorable film music that became the archetypicalprototype contemporary horror films (33).

Theshower scene was partly without any sound of music possibly becausethere was not impeding or ensuing tension. It would be followed byhigh-pitched music to denote ensuing tension. High pitch servescreates the tension effect when Marion is stealing money, speakingwith cop, and speeding on the highway. If the events just continuedwithout any music, the viewer may not figure out the tension inMarion’s mind. Considering that Marion Crane was simply compelledby circumstances to steal the money, she was not used to this kind ofcrimes. This explains why she experienced tension when stealing it. At that point she was very paranoid. All she wanted was to help herboyfriend and to escape from her home to join him. Marion keepslooking back while driving fast on the highway probably weary of apossible pursuit. The music in the background creates a nervous andagitated aura, enhancing the feeling of tension in the audience.

Intwentieth century terms, the music could be described as a concertogrosso due to its accented notes, persistent rhythm, and dissonantchords (41). Before the murder she has plans of going back to Phoenixpossibly to surrender because she knew that was the right thing todo. In the 1960s, film censorship was very elaborate and soundeffects played an important role in showing gruesome scenes of murderthe scenes that were deemed not fit for public viewing (Duncan 24).By the time Hitchcock was making the film, the audience was used tothe codes and conventions of sound. For the audiences, sound was anintegral element of the movie experience such that removing it wouldhave had a great effect on the mood as putting on composed classictheme or terrifying sound. In the shower scene of Psycho,Hitchcock infused edgy, screeching sounds in a very unconventionalmanner and indeed creates the intended effect of suspense (29). Theminute-long shower scene is preceded by Marion’s decision to stopfor a night after growing tired. The only place she can find is theSeedy Bate’s Motel, belonging to a psychopath, Norman who iskeeping his mother’s dead body in old Victorian house. By shouting,“mother!” Norman imagines that he is under his mother’s spellto commit evil among them murdering Marion. Marion’s blood flowsslowly down the drain amid the loud shrieking sounds that mark theclimax of the scene.

FollowingHitchcock’s unconventional use of sound effects, Psycho,influenced the way horror movies would be screened in future.Audience manipulation obtained new standards some of which strucksome of the most cherished societal values of family and lawfulness(33). Critics viewed the film as a stimulant to antisocial behavioramong the youth by the sight of Norman with a knife that was laterfollowed loud screams. Most viewers may not be aware of that soundmixing is as important as other editing techniques. One might thinkthat sound is simply included to break the boredom or entertain theviewer. In the actual sense, sound mixing and editing is what makesfilm as interesting as they are today. Besides off-screen sounds,Hitchcock uses other different elements of sound effects to createthe mood, realism, and illusion such as removal and addition ofsounds, silent scenes, volume manipulation, and overlapping dialogue.For example, the movie starts in the afternoon (34). The viewer seesthe transformations from the outside of the window of the roomtowards the inside using sound editing. The silence in the scene ismeant to make the viewer concentrate and interpret the setting of thescene.

Inconclusion, Hitchcock’s use of sound in the film was motivated byhis intention to manipulate the audience’s feelings rather than adirect replacement of characters. Sound conforms to the expectationsof the viewer giving them the discretion to imagine what might happenin the next scene. Music and sound effects have always been usedinterchangeably in film despite efforts to keep them separate. Mostearly directors such as Hitchcock regularly imitated diagetic sounds.The photography in a film may be different from scene to scene, butthe music and sounds sets the mood. The violins sound in Psychocreatesthe relevant effect as background music. Besides setting the mood,sound also enhances certain aspects of the plot or intentionallydiverts the attention of the audience. The film shows that use ofsound effects and music creates the intended illusion, sets the moodfor the audience, and stimulates the feeling of reality to theaudience.


Bordwell,David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. Theclassical Hollywood cinema: Film style and mode of production to1960.Routledge, 2003.

Duncan,Paul. AlfredHitchcock: The Complete Films.Taschen, 2003.

Sterritt,David. TheFilms of Alfred Hitchcock.Cambridge University Press, 1993.