An Analysis of Bernard Herrmann’s Film Composing Styles and Techniques

Blog, Education, Music

This is a University degree essay I originally wrote in 2007. It is in no way definitive, but may be useful to those studying Herrman’s work. 

Bernard Herrmann has been one of the most influential film composers through his originality and ability to create stunning scores that went against the film scoring trends of his time. A student of composer Percy Grainger, Herrmann studied at Julliard School of Music before heading to New York University where he found his voice as a contemporary composer. In 1933 he founded the New Chamber Orchestra, which played mostly unknown works by other contemporaries such as Charles Ives. It was his experience as a composer and conductor at this time that led him to become one of the world’s best-known film composers. 

He worked for CBS radio as an arranger and conductor before becoming the main composer for MGM. It was here that his ability as a composer was tested with tight restrictions and deadlines.

“I learned to become a film composer by doing two or three thousand radio dramas”[1]

It was throughout this period in his career that he gained the ability to write for small ensembles sometimes as small as three of four performers. This is a characteristic that remained with Herrmann throughout his film composing life and in several of his films we see how he ‘opted for small group arrangements or gave prominence to unusual combinations of instruments.’[2]

Hanns Eisler in his book ‘Composing for the Films’, talks about the need to avoid feeling limited by what the current fashions are and this can be applied to the popularity of using large orchestras.

“A stylistic idea on cinema music is absurd… What is needed is musical planning, the free and conscious utilization of all musical resources on the basis of accurate insight into the dramatic function of music, which is different in each concrete case.”[3]

Another important part of this period was his collaborations with Orson Welles who went on to develop the project ‘Citizen Kane’. Herrmann’s score for Citizen Kane was a direct contrast to the Hollywood film music of its’ time ‘because of its’ short and often unmelodic lines.’[4] This is also apparent by his refusal to use a large orchestra, something that stemmed from his time working on the radio.

Citizen Kane is a set of flashbacks based on the life of Charles Foster Kane a multi-millionaire. Each flash back features an interview with someone who knew him and throughout the film the audience are given contrasting views of this man. Herrmann’s music contrasts with the emotions conveyed about the man shifting from a romantic waltz to a ‘jaunty tune for woodwinds’. The most striking part of this film however is the aria written for the opera ‘Salammbo’, which features Kane’s second wife Susan giving a bad performance of a part of an opera. Herrmann deliberately sets the piece in too high a key to make it quite an uncomfortable experience, but the accompaniment itself is remarkable and provides a powerful moment in the film.

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 20.53.20

The extract above is from the aria, which ends on a top D. Most soprano singers would barely reach C so this is another way Herrmann makes Susan’s performance of this as uncomfortable as possible.

Herrmann is also one of the first composers to make use of a leitmotiv, a short theme highlighting a character or action. Many film composers of that era tended to write longer pieces and any short themes would continue on into a longer cue. With Herrmann, he was happy to leave a short theme that did not immediately develop. An example of one of his themes is shown below.

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 20.55.43

The theme above is used at the beginning of the film and developed throughout. Herrmann later commented on this:

“I decided that I would use the old musical form of the leitmotiv, in other words a theme that is transferred incessantly. So the very first bars I wrote are a series of few notes that dominate the entire film, no matter that’s happening.”[5]

However, the use of the leitmotiv was not received well by other composers such as Aaron Copland who ‘cited the leitmotif’s inappropriateness for the screen as well as decrying its formulaic predictability’[6]. Despite the unpopularity of this technique, Herrmann continued to use it in his scores and to great effect.

Herrmann completed his soundtrack to Citizen Kane but it was only one of four scores in an eight year period in a career that had yet to fully take off. Things certainly did not look any better in 1942 when a film named ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ was taken out of Orson Welles’ hands and was changed drastically along with Herrmann’s original score. As a result he demanded his name be taken out of the credits.

In 1945, Herrmann completed the score for ‘Hangover Square’ a film that was to become a cult favourite with his fans who regard this as one of his most creative scores. The film is about a troubled pianist, whose talent is apparent in the film, but he becomes violent at times and commits murder, but he doesn’t remember any of this. When the police finally catch up with him the pianist is trapped in a concert hall, which is on fire. Ignoring the chaos around him the pianist continues to play his concerto until the end. The ending of this concerto is quite unconventional in itself as it ends with just the piano playing and no orchestra (as all of the other performers have escaped the hall).

The concerto also incorporates the themes from the rest of the film into the score, including the rhythmic piano piece at the beginning of the film featuring strong bass octaves and accented chords. The romantic theme from the film is also included based upon a performance of one of his victims.

“Thus, Herrmann not only created a vibrant piece of music for the film’s denouement, but cleverly incorporated into the concerto various bits of thematic material that already served as part of the film’s underscore.”[7]

The use of themes for events in this film seems to prove Herrmann’s continued use of the leitmotiv.

In 1947, Herrmann received an assignment to compose the music for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’. Despite the title, the movie is actually a romantic story about two lovers, one of whom is dead. After moving to a seaside house, Lucy Muir becomes friends with a ghost named Captain Daniel Gregg. To help her financially, he helps her write his memoirs, which she then takes to a publisher. Whilst there she meets another author named Miles Fairley and the two fall in love. The ghost of captain Gregg does not approve and never visits Lucy again, until the finally seen where an elderly Mrs Muir passes away and the two are reunited.

It appears surprising that Herrmann would have agreed to have taken on this project based on such an unrealistic storyline. ‘Herrmann was a frequent and loud critic of what he saw from both producers and fellow musicians.’[8] The film then would require the right mood and atmosphere for it to work alongside Herrmann’s music.

Herrmann achieves the right mood from the beginning of the film with a score that contains romance and mystery. Again the score is based on motifs that are brought in, early on in the film. The first motif is a rising melody performed by a woodwind section and a harp. The second is a calmer three-note line that descends, played by a string section. The ending of the film brings these motifs together played by an orchestra, which also includes other themes from later on in the film. This provides Herrmann with a varied palette of musical ideas that are used at the end.

The majority of the score is fairly subtle giving a mood of melancholy, playing up to the idea of the ‘impossible gulf that separates Lucy from the spectral sea captain’[9]. At the end when Lucy dies, the final chords of the score are almost triumphant in approach giving the music a truly happy ending when the two reunite.

Herrmann worked differently to most film composers right from the beginning of his career. He tried as much as possible to orchestrate and conduct his own work giving his complete control over the final musical outcome. Given the temperament of the composer it is all the more surprising that he collaborated with Alfred Newman on ‘The Egyptian’ especially as the two stylistically different composers had never met prior to this.

In 1951, after the period of which many people name the ‘Golden Age’ of movies, Herrmann completed the score for ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’. This was Herrmann at his most experimental so far with an ensemble of thirty brass instruments, four harps, four pianos, electric violin and bass and two Theremins, perhaps cementing this instrument as the icon of science fiction movie music. We later see a repeat of Herrmann’s use of non-orchestral instruments in the film ‘White Witch Doctor’ where he uses an instrument named the ‘serpent’ – a brass instrument that creates a strange growling noise.

1955 was the year that sparked the beginning of a long-running partnership, collaboration with one of the best-known filmmakers of all time, Alfred Hitchcock. ‘The Trouble With Harry’ was the first of many times that they would work together. The story is about a group of people who have to decide what to do with a dead body. The most memorable part of the score is a four-note melody played by the French Horns every time someone comes across the body. Even though this wasn’t a hugely successful film in the box office, the importance of this collaboration was to be felt throughout the filmmaking world that would see some of the most famous film scenes of all time.

By 1958 Herrmann had worked on three Hitchcock films but it wasn’t until the film ‘Vertigo’ was made that this creative partnership took the world by storm. The film saw the most music Herrmann had composed for Hitchcock so far and it starts off with swirling musical patterns that would make the audience feel dizzy, based on the idea that a character named Scottie is afraid of heights. There are also trills in the strings that help in this effect.

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 20.57.21

The music above shows two sets of arpeggiated chords in contrary motion from the start of the film. Because of the lack of melody and reference points in the key, there is a feeling on uneasiness right from the beginning.

“One of the reasons for the discomfort of the opening is the absence of a conventional melody, which denies the listener the familiar point of access.”[10]

The chords themselves are seventh chords and by using this Herrmann has taken advantage of the use of the weakest note of the scale. The key points of the harmony in this music is the uncomfortable major seventh at the start and the point where the two notes are closest where they form a major second. By creating subtle atonalities in this score, the whole experience makes for uncomfortable viewing.

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 20.58.24

Before the audience can become familiar with what is happening, Herrmann changes the structure of the arpeggios with the flutes entering in late as seen above. This change is unexpected in the piece and is again effective in disturbing the audiences’ ability to settle into the music.

At the start of the film when Scottie is hanging from the gutter, there are loud harp glissandos that add to the fear of heights whilst the view from the camera is swinging backwards and forwards. Vertigo has since listed as one of the greatest films of all time.

The collaboration continued with ‘North by Northwest’ the story of an innocent man wrongly suspected of being a spy. The score for this film is often frantic especially in the beginning titles where the audience can tell straight away that the film is going to be a thriller. The most famous scene from this film is when the man has to get away from a small plane when the music only appears once the aircraft crashes unveiling brutal dissonant chords.

The most famous film between the two collaborators is the film ‘Psycho’ with what can arguably be described at one of the most famous film scenes and film music pieces of all time. Herrmann labelled this score as being ‘black and white’ suited to the film as this was also in black and white. The reason for this label is that it was written for strings only. The opening titles start with a rhythmic frantic pattern played almost representing the character Marions’ escape from Phoenix with a large sum of money. The murder scene is perhaps the most famous of them all with the screeching violin sounds mimicking the stabbing action by the murderer.

Later into the sixties Herrmann completed a score for J. Lee Thompson’s Thriller ‘Cape Fear’. In this film we see again a four-note pattern that appears several times throughout the film. The score itself was successful and when it was remade in 1991, director Martin Scorsese insisted that composer Elmer Bernstein rearrange Herrmann’s music from the original.

In 1964 Hitchcock and Herrmann collaborated for what would be the last time with the film ‘Marnie’. In this score there are two themes mainly played by strings, woodwinds, harps and French horn. They are often played at the same time as if they are clashing or competing with each other. One critic claimed it to be ‘Herrmann’s most oppressive and schizophrenic music.’[11] One theme represents the positive parts of the storyline whilst the other represents the negative. Whilst watching the film, one can hear the competition between the two with the positive theme eventually winning. The negative theme occurs mostly when Marnie sees anything with the colour red on it. The theme for this creates a feeling of unease and impending terror.

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 20.59.18

This is the short ‘negative’ theme that is heard at several points in the film. The melody ascends quickly and then there is a short, sharp descent. This melody is relatively tonal but works well in conveying the characters’ fears.

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 20.59.58

The music above is the melody to the ‘positive’ theme that brings a calming sense of normality to the film. When performed by the strings it sounds lyrical which enhances the difference between the two themes. From the very beginning of the film we see the positive theme overcome the negative and this switching between the two effectively occurs in most of the film.

In 1966 when they worked together the film studio rejected Herrmann’s score for ‘Torn Curtain’ and Hitchcock made no attempt to stop this and the collaborations between the two icons of film ended. Instead his score for ‘Fahrenheit 451’ was the made work of the year. He was now living in England and he was approached by Francois Truffaut to compose music for this adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel. The instrumentation consisted of strings, a harp and percussion. The most notable scenes are the fire-truck scene where there is a seven beat pattern of chords and the final scene where the book people walk and recite books they have memorized where there is a slow moving melodic accompaniment.

In the early 1970’s Herrmann returned to the film scoring stage to work on three films. ‘The Night Digger’, ‘The Battle of Neretva’ and ‘Endless Night’. As with many of his previous scores ‘The Night Digger’ features only a select number of orchestral instruments. It is mostly for strings and harp but also features two melody instruments, the harmonica and the viola d’amore each representing characters Billy and Maura respectively. We also see leitmotiv ideas reappear in this film as each of these instruments has their own melody associated with what is happening on screen.

The last film Herrmann completed was ‘Taxi Driver’ which was completed only hours before he died in December 1975. The film is based on an ex-marine named Travis Bickle who is an insomniac. He takes on the job of a cab driver at night in the hope that it will help him ‘burn off the anxiety that is building up inside him, instead, the work only exacerbates the problem’[12]. The audience hears his thoughts day by day about the declining conditions he sees around him and his build up of rage. He eventually builds up a collection of armour and guns and plans to kill someone. The result is a blood bath.

Herrmann’s score for this film interestingly enough is based on Jazz. The main theme is played by an alto saxophone, which occurs throughout the film. This seems to be in keeping with the urban setting. Strings are hardly used in the film and when they are it is only for subtle effect. There are no lyrical melodies as seen in previous films, but savage brass chords and ‘street-wise’ saxophone melodies. The main titles begin with large crescendos, which seem reminiscent of the main characters build up of rage. Herrmann believed that his cues should represent the ‘interior states of characters’[13] and this is most evident in Taxi Driver.

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 21.00.44

The score above is the ‘New York’ theme, a melody played rather grandly in the opening of the film accompanied by timpani and harp. Whilst this is being played the view of the film shows the desperate state of the city, the two together portraying blatant irony as if to make a point of what is happening on screen.

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 21.01.41

The melody above is known as the ‘Gloom’ theme and is in complete contrast to the ‘New York’ theme. Played by low brass it highlights the characters lowest feelings especially in the scene where there is an endless amount of traffic queuing up down the road, perhaps emphasising the characters inability to escape from his own feelings.

Bernard Herrmann was certainly a unique composer of his time, bringing qualities from conventional film scores and fusing them with the qualities of contemporary scoring.

“He represents a bridge between the classicism of Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, and Erich Korngold and the more dissonant styles of Alex North, Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith.”[14]

What gave Herrmann his originality was him not relying on the fashionable use of romantic styles and often ‘avoiding a direct correlation between music and screen action’[15]. This gave his music hidden depths and enabled the audience to explore the characters thoughts especially if they were not being convey by what was on screen alone.

Unlike most composers who had contracts with production companies, Herrmann was freelance and only worked for the best directors in the business making sure that every film he worked on was something special. The success of the soundtracks speak for themselves and they are ‘thought of as classics by critics and audiences alike.’[16]


[1] Darby, W. American Film Music, McFarland Classics, 1990. p.345

[2] Lack, R, A Buried History of Film Music, Quartet Books, 1997. p. 129

[3] Eisler, H. Composing for the Films, New York, 1947. p. 80

[4] Darby, W. American Film Music. McFarland Classics, 1990. p.350

[5] MacDonald, L. The Invisible Art of Film Music, Ardsley House, 1998. p. 69

[6] Reay, P. Music in Film, Wallflower, 2004. p. 16

[7] MacDonald, L. The Invisible Art of Film Music, Ardsley House, 1998. p. 89

[8] Darby, W. American Film Music. McFarland Classics, 1990. p.345

[9] MacDonald, L. The Invisible Art of Film Music, Ardsley House, 1998. p. 99

[10] Dickinson, K. Movie Music: The Film Reader, Routledge, 2003. p. 16

[11] Darby, W. American Film Music. McFarland Classics, 1990. p.357

[12] MacDonald, L. The Invisible Art of Film Music, Ardsley House, 1998. p. 256

[13] Darby, W. American Film Music. McFarland Classics, 1990. p.349

[14] Darby, W. American Film Music. McFarland Classics, 1990. p.348

[15] Reay, P. Music in Film, Wallflower, 2004. p. 17

[16] Reay, P. Music in Film, Wallflower, 2004. p. 118

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