“Where’s the theme song?”

In March of 1966, Alfred Hitchcock stormed out of a recording session at the Goldwyn Studios in Los Angeles after firing Bernard Herrmann in front nearly 60 professional musicians. Hitchcock had listened to the new score for Torn Curtain and was instantly enraged. “Where’s the theme song?” Hitchcock demanded. “Where’s the theme song?” Movie soundtracks of the mid-1960s relied heavily on chart-topping commercial hits (Mancini’s “Moon River” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), and Hitchcock was looking for a feature song for his latest film. However, Herrmann was not going to be the man to provide it. The truth is Herrmann had never written a “theme song” in his entire career. Herrmann didn’t want the audience to leave the theater whistling a pretty melody; he wanted the audience to leave the theater having experienced a prescribed sentiment. Herrmann’s core philosophy of scoring film music was not to provide music to accompany the action of the film, but rather to paint a psychological portrait or arouse a compelling atmosphere, a tormented character in Citizen Kane or a hellish city in Taxi Driver. And it is this aesthetic that paired so perfectly with the mind of Alfred Hitchcock, the master of conjuring psychological intensity through cinematic composition.


Bernard Herrmann (known by his friends as “Benny”) built a substantial career as a musician, conductor and composer, studying at NYU and Juilliard after growing up a regular Wunderkind. Before focusing mainly on film, he spent several years as the chief conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra, where he composed for radio drama and collaborated regularly with Orson Welles. Moreover, he wrote a few works outside of film and radio, including Moby Dick: Cantata dedicated to Charles Ives and other programmatic pieces like Tempest and Storm: Furies Shrieking! (for solo piano) or Silent Noon (for 14 instruments), exemplifying his signature grim tendencies as well as his future career with Hitchcock.

“I don’t like the leitmotif system.“

Much of Herrmann’s compositional style stems from the classical tradition, tracing back to Hollywood soundtracks of the 1930s by Korngold and Max Steiner and even further to fin-de-siècle Viennese composers like Mahler and Berg, as well as modernists such as Stravinsky and Ives. Some of his later works utilize new innovations in music like sound editing and moog synthesizers, adding to his own novel orchestrations to create other-worldly timbres in The Day the Earth Stood Still or the devil’s fiddle from The Devil and Daniel Webster. A predominant style does not govern his works, though the quality is generally dark.

In contrast to film composers before him, Herrmann did not cling to the leitmotif or tuneful melodies for that matter. In an August 1975 interview, Herrmann said:

“I don’t like the leitmotif system. The short phrase is easier to follow for an audience, who listen with only half an ear. Don’t forget that the best they do is half an ear. You know, the reason I don’t like this tune business is that a tune has to have eight or sixteen bars, which limits you as a composer. Once you start, you’ve got to finish-eight or sixteen bars. Otherwise, the audience doesn’t know what the hell it’s all about. It’s putting handcuffs on yourself.”

His pseudo-Romantic melodies are often difficult to hum and often not distinguished enough to remember when walking home from the theater. This characteristic diverges from 1930s Hollywood composers, as well as neo-Wagnerian film music of the 1980s, especially that of John Williams, giving Herrmann his own unique niche in film music. Herrmann’s goal was not to set the music to match the drama in the film; the music was to stand on its own outside the film.

Hitchcock’s Man

In the mid-1950s, Herrmann was quite popular in Hollywood, averaging about three film scores a year, when he met Alfred Hitchcock for their first collaboration in 1955. Over the course of eleven years, Herrmann composed the scores for seven Hitchcock films. Thrilling, mind-wrenching, and anxiety-driven, the scores employ the use of rhythmic drive and bipolar intensities that motivate the listener to recall a feeling or psychological state. Let’s take a brief look at each film individually.

The Trouble with Harry (1955)

The score begins with a counterintuitive dance number that cycles through lyric, yet un-memorable Romantic melodies. The folksy tune provides the provincial setting of the small town in Vermont, while the constant interruptions by various instrument groups remind the listener that something is a little bit off. The score is perfect for the plot that follows a Romantic-comedy somehow un-interrupted when a dead body is found on a hill. Herrmann arranged his music for The Trouble with Harry as a suite titled "A Portrait of Hitch" that he recorded with The London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by the composer himself.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

The prelude is a disturbed fanfare, an appropriate setting for the opening of the gate to Tartarus. The score also features the Livingston/Evans song “Que Sera Sera” and a cantata by Arthur Benjamin. This film gave Herrmann his big break in acting, a famous scene taking place at Royal Albert Hall with the composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Tension builds on the principal cymbal player and Doris Day as a crash and a scream spoil an assassination attempt.

The Wrong Man (1956)

The film tells the story of an ordinary man who is wanted for robbing a bank. The Wrong Man opens with brassy Jazz music at The Stork Club where the main character is seen playing bass in the orchestra. The majority of the score echoes the protagonist’s struggle as he attempts to prove his innocence. Herrmann pays homage to Charles Ives in the finale with a lingering oboe solo that sounds like a tonalized version of The Unanswered Question.

Vertigo (1958)

One of Herrmann’s most iconic works, the score for Vertigo is woven with a chromatic motif accompanied by celeste, no doubt meant to create a sense of dizziness and disfunction. This perpetual motif is contrasted with a love theme greatly influenced by Tristan and Isolde.

North by Northwest (1959)

The score for North by Northwest focuses around a wild fandango, signifying the chase that drives the plot. Much of the drama in Hitchcock’s films is built without the use of music. For instance, the famous cropduster scene in which the protagonist is chased by an airplane is completely devoid of music.

Psycho (1960)

Memorable but not exactly melodic, you might not be able to sing the shower scene from Psycho, but you remember how you felt when you watched it. After all, it was Herrmann’s idea to add music to this scene. In addition, the instrumentation for Psycho is novel in the use of a small string orchestra instead of a full orchestra. 

Marnie (1964)

In the last film score Herrmann produced for Hitchcock, Herrmann paints a cold backdrop for a very complex character who makes a living as an identity thief. The story is classified by Hitchcock as a “sex mystery”, as the main character, Marnie, has no interest in men and eventually gets raped by Mark Rutland, played by Sean Connery, which is why the score focuses around a neo-Romantic theme with a melancholy glow. The score is not one of Herrmann’s most defining; however, it is a perfect attempt at defining the protagonist’s psychological state.

“I had a career before, and I will afterwards. Thank you.”

The Herrmann-Hitchcock partnership dissolved in 1966 with Torn Curtain. Varying stories recall the incident, but the ending is clear: the two would never work together again. This was no setback for Herrmann’s chance at landing a gig though. Later that same year, he recorded his only opera Wuthering Heights, an opera that hadn’t receive a complete staged performance until 2011 by the Minnesota Opera. He also continued writing film scores, including Twisted Nerve and Taxi Driver, the later having been recorded in the studio the night that he died. Herrmann’s legacy continues to inspire film composers (and directors) to this day; however, his philosophy of writing film music to examine the human psyche sets him in a category apart from his predecessors and successors.



“BERNARD HERRMANN on working with ORSON WELLES and CITIZEN KANE”. 24 June 2007. http://www.wellesnet.com/?p=176

Sinyard, Neil. “Hitchcock vs Herrmann: the story behind the break-up of cinema’s finest director/composer partnership”. 31 January 2013. http://neilsinyard.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk/?p=56

Society for the Appreciation of the Music of Bernard Herrmann. Accessed 15 November 2014. http://www.bernardherrmann.org