How does the use of sound in Hitchcock’s films contribute to their overall effect?
Hitchcock once said in an interview that ‘after every picture is cut, I dictate what amounts to a real sound script to a secretary. We run every reel off and I indicate the places where sound should be heard’. This attention to detail is unusual for a director to pay, and the difference is apparent in all of his films, however the soundtracks to Rear Window, Psycho and The Birds will be the focus of this essay. Traditionally in Hollywood studios there are three categories that sound is divided into: dialogue, sound effects and music; but Hitchcock treats them almost as a symphony working together to create the perfect aural setting for his films. Consequently, the absence of sound becomes just as impactful in Hitchcock’s films, in order to heighten tension for the viewers and draw attention to the action onscreen. This essay will explore Hitchcock’s use of music/dialogue, sound effects and silence within Rear Window, Psycho and The Birds in order to intensify the effect of the films.
Hitchcock manipulates music and dialogue in Rear Window to exacerbate the sense of voyeurism felt by the viewer. Miss Lonelyhearts preparing dinner for an imaginary caller is accompanied by a sorrowfully melodic track with the lyrics ‘to see you is to love you | and you’re never out of sight’, suggesting her constant sense of unrequited love and from this, Hitchcock begins to use sound to manipulate the audience’s emotional response. This is juxtaposed with a shot of Miss Torso’s apartment, potentially Hitchcock is ironically using these lyrics as her apartment is never ‘out of sight’ and it is already established that Jeffries has taken a fancy to her, ‘I hope it’s not just leg shots in here’. Stam and Pearson suggest that ‘the world across the courtyard is presented as a series of framed genre pantomimes in which accompanying music largely substitutes for a dialogue track’. This is furthered by Hitchcock’s dialogue choices in the conversation between Lisa and Jeffries, where she references the ‘opening night [of Jeffries’ final week] in a cast’. As she closes the curtains on his window she says ‘the show is over’, strengthening this sense of theatrical voyeurism felt by both Jeffries and the audience. ‘The composer’, another of Jeffries’ neighbours, is heard to be writing a song throughout the film, providing a uniting tone of continuity and inciting the sense of time passing. This is combined with diegetic sounds from the street to remind us that the world does not stop and people are living their daily lives outside the constraints of the singular viewpoint we are afforded. At the end of the film we see ‘the composer’ and Miss Lonelyhearts listening to the finished song together, an affirmation of the healing powers of music. Another way Hitchcock uses music is to reflect time lapses during the night Mr Thorwald enters and leaves his apartment multiple times in order to dispose of his wife’s body; the cuts and changes in the music reflect the ‘temporal discontinuity’ of the scene. Hitchcock uses dialogue to support minor themes within the film in Rear Window, however this is not the case in all of his films.
Hitchcock has been quoted as saying ‘when we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise’ and this is most clearly shown The Birds. In the Tides Restaurant scene we hear diegetic sounds including an order for ‘three fried chicken!’ being called out, which may be a sly nod to the everyday animal cruelty humankind propagates and could be taken as one of the causes of the bird attacks. There are multiple explanations for the attacks called out in the restaurant scene, creating a sense of unease as it becomes apparent no one knows why these events are occurring. By making a reference to ‘the end of the world’, Hitchcock adds a religious aspect to the film, making the bird attacks all the more terrifying as they could be seen as a form of penance for humankind and gives the sense that the bird attacks are being orchestrated by a higher power. This film is also traditionally scoreless and its main sounds come from a new, electronic instrument called the trautonium used to create the effects discussed later. Hitchcock does not lose the music in the film, but merely ‘opened new aesthetic possibilities in his musical imagination’, using the sounds of the birds’ onslaughts, each one unique, to create an avant-garde ‘and scrupulously planned musical pattern’ within the film. One of the two inclusions of traditional music in the film comes near the beginning when Melanie is playing Debussy’s first Arabesque on the piano, the classical tone reminiscent of the calm moments before the storm of terror reigns down on Bodega Bay. The other comes when the schoolchildren are singing Risseldy Rosseldy, a highly repetitive folksong whose clockwork tone heightens the sense of time passing in the film as well as the sense of suspense as we see increasing numbers of birds gathering around the school. Allen suggests that Hitchcock is using the song to ‘express her [Melanie’s] fear to the point where we might imagine that what is being presented here is a mental landscape’ in which her growing anxiety is summoning a mental image of the birds as a visual representation of fear.
Psycho also alludes to birds as a source of terror, something that is shown in the infamous shower scene which pushed instrumental boundaries by scraping violin strings to imitate the sounds of screeching birds. Weis argues that by doing this, Hitchcock ‘associates Norman with his stuffed birds of prey but also associates the viewers with the on-screen victims […] the cries of the victims, the screeches of the violins and the screams of the audience merge indistinguishably’ and as such, is using music to draw the audience into the heart of the film and truly make watching a visceral, immersive experience. Another way Hitchcock manipulates the aural aspect to create a sense of unease is by including acousmatic sounds (ones that come from off-screen) such as Mother’s voice. The lack of source for this dialogue feeds into the sense of confusion and uncertainty that pervades all aspects of Psycho. Music is also used in conjunction with dialogue to establish the audience’s relationship to characters, and the interpersonal relationships they have. This is clear in the case of Marion as the score serves to highlight her changing states from being deeply in love to anxiously escaping with the money and finally culminating in her murder. Hitchcock creates this effect of a mental decline through the use of imaginary voices in Marion’s head, playing out the conversation where her boss realises the crime she has committed accompanied by tense violin music at an increasing tempo in order to heighten the tension. This music is also reminiscent of that played during the shower scene at points, potentially highlighting this as a pivotal moment in determining Marion’s fate. Lerner also notes the ‘obsessive phase repetition approximates the claustrophobic space of the car […and] within Marion’s own mind’, showing just how subtly Hitchcock exercises his ‘control’ over the audience and their perceptions of the film.
As mentioned above, diegetic sound plays a key role in Rear Window and was the first example of this directorial approach. Cox and Neumeyer say that ‘the soundtrack never allows us to hear more than a few words of what is said within each apartment […] all we can normally hear from the neighbors’ apartments is the music they play or listen to’ which gives a heightened sense of realism to the film. In the summertime when windows are open it is guaranteed that you will hear sounds from the street to remind you of time passing, and by including such sound effects in Rear Window, Hitchcock has subtly included a ticking clock that reminds us of how soon Jeffries must solve this case in order for justice to be served. Another function this diegetic sound serves is to contribute to the ‘complete direction of attention in the direction of the courtyard’ and to remind the audience that the film is not about Jeffries but rather about what his vantage point grants us an opportunity to see. Belton remarks that Hitchcock manipulates the background noises, muting and drawing attention to them at will, ‘sometimes this is to attract the identity of James Stewart (and the spectator) to the exterior, sometimes, to the contrary, it is to ‘close’ the dramatic space on the little theatre of the living room’. By closing the curtains Hitchcock creates a sense of claustrophobia, presumably to make the audience empathize with how Jeffries feels trapped in that single room. From this, we can see that the level of control Hitchcock has over his audience is second to none, and how adeptly he can manipulate sounds to highlight and disguise plot information.
The sound effects are vital to the plot in The Birds as Hitchcock chose not to include music, so the soundtrack consisted almost solely of electronic and natural sounds, but to a very similar effect as a traditional score. Due to the technological origins of the soundtrack, the setting of the film seems all the more desolate and hostile to human life. The Birds is widely regarded as Hitchcock’s most stylized soundtrack as he was able to ‘not only […] indicate the sound we want, but also the style and the nature of each sound’. This was due to the use of the new sound technology (trautonium) being used, granting Hitchcock and his team a much greater level of control over the audio. It is this incredible attention to detail and focus on the aural elements that make The Birds stand out as a remarkable film. The bird cries are undeniably the source of terror following the initial attack, and Weis has noted that Hitchcock ‘controls suspense simply by manipulating the sounds of flapping and bird cries’. Throughout, he seems to draw links between the sounds of human screams and bird cries, especially in the scene where the children are running down the hill and you cannot distinguish between the two sounds. Allen suggests that there is a link between the two and that Hitchcock is reiterating this idea visually by putting them on similar playground equipment, but also aurally by ‘matching the rhythmic sounds of the bird’s wings with the children’s stamping feet and the birds’ screeches with the children’s screams’. This is just one example of Hitchcock’s aural cross-references hidden in the film. Melanie’s car screeching is seen by Weis to be representative of her cold and mechanical nature, however later another human/machine parallel is drawn when Mitch’s mother finds a neighbour that has been attacked ‘the screech of the truck engine starting off conveys her anguish’, a human quality. The positions have been switched, ‘at first a person sounds like a machine; now a machine sounds like a person’.
As mentioned previously, Psycho has many links to birds not only visually, but aurally. Hitchcock once said in an interview ‘to describe a sound accurately, one has to imagine its equivalent in dialogue’, something that can be easily done for the birdlike screeching emitted from the violins made to mimic the sound of human screams, much like in The Birds. By emanating this sense of fear, Hitchcock ensures he incites his audience to scream too, making watching the film a more immersive experience. He manipulates the voices we hear throughout the film as well, particularly that of Mother, ‘the voice we hear […] does not belong to Perkins [the actor who plays Norman], but is ‘spliced and blended’ from a ‘mixture of different voices’’. This gives Mother’s voice an unusual quality and serves to further separate it from the character of Norman. This use of acousmatic sound, as mentioned above, serves to heighten tension and separate the character of Mother from the action whilst reminding the audience of her omnipotence. During the shower scene in particular, Hitchcock uses anempathetic sounds such as the shower continuing to run to show how indifferent life is to the individual actions of humans, and how time keeps slowly passing. This adds a sense of impersonality to the film, putting the audience in a similar position to that of Norman, privy to the crimes but somehow devoid of responsibility and an ability to change the course of events. The effortless way in which Hitchcock manipulates the audience’s perception of the film to inspire this sense of fear and detachment through his clever use of sound effects shows how talented a director he was.
Whilst this essay has shown the importance of sound to all three films, another key aspect of Hitchcock’s work is the creative use of silence and the effects of the contrasting states. In Rear Window silence is not used as much as in The Birds, however this means that silence provides a sharp contrast to the plot when it does appear. There are a few instances that seem reminiscent of silent movies, such as the scene where Lisa is in Mr Thorwald’s apartment and miming to Jeffries what she uncovers. As mentioned earlier the film as a whole can also be seen as an allegory for silent movies or many different ‘plays of life’ being acted out in front of Jeffries’ window, underwritten with a musical score. Belton makes an interesting point about the lack of noise from the neighbours directly surrounding Jeffries’ apartment, suggesting it creates an ‘aural point of view [that] relies upon a repression similar to that of the fourth side’ and forcing our attention as voyeurs out of the apartment and into the courtyard. At the end of Jeffries’ phone call to Doyle there is a second of silence, save for his panicked breathing. It is likely that Hitchcock has done this to draw the audience into Jeffries’ position of sheer terror and helplessness and thus creating an immense amount of tension very quickly, especially when we see Thorwald’s apartment plunged into darkness. The silence is interrupted by the sheer ring of the phone and Jeffries answers, assuming it’s Tom when it is in fact Thorwald. Silence once again reigns, acting almost as an aural gut-punch, as Hitchcock gives the audience time to descend into panic. This continues, save for some car noises from the street, as we see Jeffries desperately trying to prepare himself for Thorwald’s arrival. The silence here creates an altered timeframe where things seem to happen slower, but at the same time creates an incredible level of tension as you are always keeping your ears pricked for any sounds of threat. As Thorwald enters, the quiet background noise highlights the stomping sound of his advancing footsteps and the creaks of the door, placing the viewer within Jeffries’ apartment and forcing us to feel the same emotions he does.
Near the beginning of production for The Birds Hitchcock decided that ‘the film would have no conventional music […as] he felt it would be more effective’. Silence is used similarly to Rear Window to create tension and contrast, usually directly before a noisy bird attack; an aural representation of ‘the calm before the storm’ similar to Melanie’s song but with much more menacing undertones. By reducing the soundtrack, Hitchcock creates intensely violent and impactful attack sequences of ‘silent murder’, like he had wished to do in Psycho. He does not use pure silence, but instead an almost indiscernible electronic hum to make the audience relate to the characters’ constant sense of being under threat, ‘the equivalent of a brooding silence’. Weis argues that this eventually leads us to ‘feel just as vulnerable in moments of relative tranquillity as in chaos’, due to the perpetual unease that perpetrates the film. This is due to moments such as the scene when Mitch pulls Melanie into the Tides Restaurant only to discover dead bodies mutilated by birds, a common theme associated with silence throughout the film. Associations such as these serve to further the omnipresent atmosphere of disconnect between the human and animal worlds and highlight how vulnerable humans are to the vindictive power of nature. Moments such as the truck engine screeching mentioned previously become all the more unnerving and act as an equal source of fear due to the comparative natural silence. Hitchcock uses music as such an integral plot device that it almost takes on the role of another character in the film with its own agency, something Sullivan dubs a ‘preternatural presence’.
Silence is not used as a narrative device in Psycho as much as in Rear Window or The Birds, however Weis suggests that when it is used it is linked to ‘repression and violence and sound with expressive release’. There is an alternative school of thought surrounding the use of silence, called the melodramatic, where ‘silence and screams are not opposites at all but two hyperarticulate expressions of […] spiritual truth’. When we see the skull of Mother, accompanied only by violin noises and Lila’s screams and devoid of speech, it appears to be ‘melodramatically silent, stripped of verbal language and elevated by sound’. In Psycho, as in The Birds, silence seems to be linked clearly to death, as evidenced by the diminishing soundtrack and eventual musical silence that falls as Marion breathes her last breath. Once she is dead, the only sound is that of the water running in the shower, as if to remind us of how Marion’s life has been washed away by Norman. Hitchcock replaced many of the screams in Psycho with screeching violins, sonically silencing his characters and drawing attention solely to the crimes that are being committed. Hemmeter suggests that by superimposing Mother’s voice over Norman’s mute face at the end of the film it evokes a sense of Norman’s loss of identity, and therefore ‘verbal sound is silence, the denial of genuine speech’. By showing Mother as the dominant personality inside Norman, Hitchcock has not only verbally silenced Norman but also silenced any agency he previously had and condemned him to a life of silent servitude.
Hitchcock uses sound throughout his films to add a deeper level of meaning or significance to the visual elements and to make the viewer get a sense of involvement, placing the audience in the position of aural voyeur. He plays with interlinking aspects of music and dialogue in order to create subtext to the plot of Rear Window by creating parallels to silent movies that put the audience in the position of voyeur; as well as using music as a temporal signifier. He makes great use of diegetic sounds to heighten the sense of realism and therefore engagement with his films. He uses sound effects, particularly related to birds, in order to convey senses of suspense and terror and links them repeatedly to human screams. Finally he uses silence as a controlling factor, exploiting it to dictate to the audience when to feel fear and to constantly keep us on our toes. The link between silence and death is prevalent through the oeuvre of Hitchcock’s films, and is remarkably effective. Hitchcock does indeed treat the medium of sound as ‘a new dimension of cinematic expression’ and by placing it on an equal level of importance to the visual aspects, he has revolutionized modern day cinema as we know it.
Allen, Richard, ‘The Sound of The Birds’, The MIT Press, 146 (2013), pp.97-120
Belton, John, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)
Chion, Michel, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019)
Cox, Helen and Neumeyer, David, ‘The Musical Function of Sound in Three Films by Alfred Hitchcock’, Indiana Theory Review, 19 (1998), pp.13-33
Haeffner, Nicholas, Alfred Hitchcock (London: Routledge, 2015)
Hemmeter, Thomas, ‘Hitchcock’s Melodramatic Silence’, Journal of Film and Video, 48.1-2 (1996), pp.32-40
McCombe, John P., ‘‘Oh, I see…’: The Birds and the Culmination of Hitchcock’s Hyper-Romantic Vision’ in A Hitchcock Reader, ed. by Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague (Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), pp.264-279
Moral, Tony Lee, The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds (Hertfordshire: Kamera Books, 2013)
Psycho, dir. by Alfred Hitchcock (Paramount Pictures, 1960) [on DVD]
Rear Window, dir. by Alfred Hitchcock (Paramount Pictures, 1954) [on DVD]
Stam, Robert and Pearson, Roberta, ‘Hitchcock’s Rear Window: Reflexivity and the Critique of Voyeurism’ in A Hitchcock Reader, ed. by Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague (Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), pp.199-211
Sullivan, Jack, Hitchcock’s Music (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2007)
The Birds, dir by. Alfred Hitchcock (Universal Pictures, 1963) [on DVD]
Thomas, Deborah, ‘On Being Norman: Performance and Inner Life in Hitchcock’s Psycho’ in A Hitchcock Reader, ed. by Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague (Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), pp.369-376
Truffaut, Francois, Hitchcock (London: Faber and Faber, 2017)
Weis, Elisabeth, ‘The Evolution of Hitchcock’s Aural Style and Sound in The Birds’ in Film Sound: Theory and Practice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), pp.298-311
 Elisabeth Weis, ‘The Evolution of Hitchcock’s Aural Style and Sound in The Birds’ in Film Sound: Theory and Practice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), pp.298-311, p.298-9.
 Rear Window, dir. by Alfred Hitchcock (Paramount Pictures, 1954) [on DVD].
 Robert Stam and Roberta Pearson, ‘Hitchcock’s Rear Window: Reflexivity and the Critique of Voyeurism’ in A Hitchcock Reader, ed. by Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague (Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), pp.199-211, p.201.
 Rear Window.
 Helen Cox and David Neumeyer, ‘The Musical Function of Sound in Three Films by Alfred Hitchcock’, Indiana Theory Review, 19 (1998), pp.13-33, p.31.
 Weis, p.298.
 The Birds, dir by. Alfred Hitchcock (Universal Pictures, 1963) [on DVD].
John P. McCombe, ‘‘Oh, I see…’: The Birds and the Culmination of Hitchcock’s Hyper-Romantic Vision’ in A Hitchcock Reader, ed. by Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague (Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), pp.264-279, p.268.
 Jack Sullivan, Hitchcock’s Music (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2007), p.265.
 Richard Allen, ‘The Sound of The Birds’, The MIT Press, 146 (2013), pp.97-120, p.115.
 Weis, p.304.
 Psycho, dir. by Alfred Hitchcock (Paramount Pictures, 1960) [on DVD].
 Cox and Neumeyer, p.31.
 John Belton, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.114.
 Ibid., p.115.
 Weis, p.304.
 Ibid., p305.
 McCombe, p.278.
 Nicholas Haeffner, Alfred Hitchcock (London: Routledge, 2015), p.55.
 Weis, p.309.
 Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock (London: Faber and Faber, 2017), p.297.
 Deborah Thomas, ‘On Being Norman: Performance and Inner Life in Hitchcock’s Psycho’ in A Hitchcock Reader, ed. by Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague (Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), pp.369-376, p.368.
 Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), p.xix.
 Belton, p.117.
 Tony Lee Moral, The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds (Hertfordshire: Kamera Books, 2013), p.157.
 Ibid., p.164-5.
 Sullivan, p.269.
 Weis, p.308.
 Sullivan, p.269.
 Thomas Hemmeter, ‘Hitchcock’s Melodramatic Silence’, Journal of Film and Video, 48.1-2 (1996), pp.32-40, p.33.
 Ibid., p.34.
 Ibid., p.37.
 Weis, p.299.