Eight Iconic Bernard Herrmann Film Scores You Should Hear Before You Die

Eight Iconic Bernard Herrmann Film Scores You Should Hear Before You Die

Imagine a world where film scores and soundtracks don’t exist. It would be analogous to eating food that had no seasoning. Movie audiences might miss out on critical moments without music to highlight them. Viewers might not feel a deep and meaningful connection to the characters and themes. Music is a powerful force that inspires emotions in listeners, and a film score plays an essential role, partnering with the writing, acting, direction, and photography to tell a compelling story.

Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) was an American composer and conductor who is widely considered one of the greatest film composers of all time. Herrmann was a frequent collaborator with filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, composing the scores for several of Hitchcock’s best-known films. Many consider Herrmann to be a revolutionary in film music composition, abandoning the illustrative film scoring style of the 1930s and infusing scores with unconventional approaches to rhythm and harmony. A prolific composer, he scored over 200 films, and many of those scores are enjoyed by film enthusiasts today.

Bernard Herrmann Film Score Magic

Some of the reasons why Bernard Herrmann movies are widely appreciated and studied include the following:

  • Distinctive style: Many of Herrmann’s scores were dark and suspenseful while also being lyrical and beautiful. He used music to create atmospheres and build worlds.
  • Master of orchestration: Herrmann understood the orchestra through and through, composing complex scores that had a very clear and memorable sound.
  • Innovative and experimental: Herrmann was open to new ideas and working with filmmakers to maximize the experience for moviegoers. He also prioritized the needs of the film over orchestration norms. For example, he used nine harps in the score of “Beneath the 12-Mile Reef” to create a dreamy, aquatic soundscape.
  • Pioneering composer: Bernard Herrmann was also one of the first composers to use electronic music in film, including the theremin in 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Look for these qualities in these eight iconic Bernard Herrmann film scores:

1. ‘Psycho’

This 1960 Hitchcock film is widely considered to be Bernard Herrmann’s most influential and impactful work. Whereas many mid-century movies featured jazz-inspired scores, Herrmann opted for traditional orchestral sounds, including quiet moments using odd rhythms to build tension and suspense. One of the most famous scenes from Psycho is the legendary shower scene. While Hitchcock wanted the scene to be silent, Herrmann provided a score of short, staccato, high-pitched string notes. This style came to dominate slasher films and is often referenced in other films, TV shows, and even commercials to indicate imminent danger.

2. ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’

Of all of the Bernard Herrmann movies created, this score was reportedly his favorite. For this 1947 film, Herrmann created a moody and romantic score that included several leitmotifs, which are recurring themes in music. Herrmann joked that this film score was his “Max Steiner score” as the use of leitmotifs was not common in Herrmann’s work up to that point.

3. ‘Vertigo’

1958’s Vertigo stands as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most significant films and that’s partially due to Bernard Herrmann’s score. In this film, a retired detective afflicted with vertigo is hired to guard a woman who seems to be possessed by a spirit. Herrmann’s score of dissonant chords and undulating rhythms perfectly underscore the vertigo and suspense of the film, especially as heard in “Scene D’Amour.”

4. ‘Citizen Kane’

This 1941 film marked the first time that Herrmann and director Orson Welles worked together on the big screen. In this movie, the titular character dies uttering the enigmatic final word “rosebud.” As others in the film try to decipher these words, viewers are presented with a retrospective of Kane’s life. Herrmann introduces a waltz theme that gets darker and more mysterious as the film progresses.

5. ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’

Robert Wise’s 1951 science fiction film tells the story of an alien who comes to Earth to warn people of impending doom. This stands out among Bernard Herrmann film scores for its use of electronic instruments, including the theremin, electric violin, electric cello, electric bass, and various organs. Herrmann used a mixture of electronic and traditional instruments to create the space-inspired mood for this movie.

6. ‘North by Northwest’

Considered one of the greatest films of all time, North by Northwest is a 1959 spy thriller by Alfred Hitchcock. The main character, Richard Hannay, is an innocent man being pursued across the country by a mysterious organization. Herrmann brings a high-energy, thrumming score featuring rapid notes that echo the main character’s cluelessness about why he is being pursued.

7. ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster / All That Money Can Buy’

Bernard Herrmann provided the film score for this 1941 film directed by William Dieterle. It’s based on a stage adaptation of a short story from 1936. In this film, a struggling farmer makes a deal with the devil for financial success. Herrmann earned his sole Academy Award for this film soundtrack, providing innovative sound techniques, including the use of humming phone lines to introduce the devil character in various scenes. That same year, Herrmann was also nominated for his score for Citizen Kane. The film’s title was later changed to All That Money Can Buy to avoid confusion with The Devil and Miss Jones, another film released the same year.

8. ‘Taxi Driver’

Released in 1976, Taxi Driver was the last film that Bernard Herrmann scored. This landmark movie was directed by Martin Scorsese and starred the legendary Robert DeNiro. It is considered one of the greatest films of all time and was preserved in the National Film Registry. DeNiro plays the titular character, Travis Bickle, who works as a night taxi driver to fight insomnia. Herrmann’s jazzy score turns to sharp, dissonant brass sections and harsh harp segments, underscoring Bickle’s growing mental instability. Berrmann died just hours after completing the score, receiving a posthumous nomination for Best Score at the Academy Awards.

Bernard Herrmann provided the music for some of the most culturally significant and critically acclaimed films of all time. He’s left an incredible legacy on both movies and music with his unique and innovative approach to films. His music continues to inspire composers and musicians today. You can also find inspiration at Musicnotes with digital sheet music from these iconic Bernard Herrmann movies.


  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Herrmann
  • https://movieweb.com/best-movie-composers-of-all-time-ranked/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theremin
  • https://www.filmindependent.org/blog/know-the-score-anatomy-of-a-great-film-score-psycho/
  • https://filmlifestyle.com/what-is-a-leitmotif/
  • https://www.nytimes.com/1996/10/06/movies/the-music-that-casts-the-spells-of-vertigo.html
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Day_the_Earth_Stood_Still#Herrmann's_score
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Devil_and_Daniel_Webster_(film)#Awards_and_honors
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxi_Driver
  • https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/