There was a terrific piece on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday this morning about Alfred Hitchcock's use of music in his films. American Studies professor Jack Sullivan has a new book out on the subject, "Hitchcock's Music."
Hitchcock believed that music could reveal his characters' motives and souls in a way that words never could. Often, Sullivan points out, the music is telling us things about the characters that the characters haven't even figured out.
Hitchcock worked with some of the greatest film composers of his day, Bernard Hermann and Miklos Rozsa being the two most famous. Hermann's greatest work was done for Hitchcock on films such as "Vertigo," "North By Northwest" and "Psycho" (a rare all-string score).
In "The Birds," the score consists almost entirely of electronic bird noises. The sole exception is a scene where Tippi Hedron waits outside the school as the children sing inside and the birds gather menacingly in the background. Hitchcock loved the contradiction between the innocent singing and the gathering terror. Sullivan notes that it creates an almost unbearable tension. It's one of the most frightening scenes in the film.
In another score for a Hitchcock movie, for "Spellbound," the Theremin, with all its spooky humming and moaning, was first used in a film.
My favorite: Hermann's score for "North By Northwest" (Sullivan praises it also). It's big and dynamic and perfectly sets the mood for one of Hitchcock's best entertainments. Watch the opening to see how the theme perfectly connects with Saul Bass's dramatic credit sequence to set up the whole mood and tone of the film.
You can listen to the NPR interview here as well as selections from several scores for Hitchcock pictures and read a sample chapter from Sullivan's book.