The most radical soundtrack in movie history

Have you seen The Birds recently? The Alfred Hitchcock movie from 1963?

I hadn’t seen it since I was about 7 years old, but last weekend I watched it again, with my kids. Mainly to see if they would find it as scary as previous generations did, but also to watch it with fresh eyes myself. Also with fresh ears, since I now enjoy the music of Bernard Hermann, who composed the music for many of Hitchcock’s famous movies. (For the record, the kids liked it but didn’t find it particularly scary. Unlike my neighbor, who literally shuddered when I mentioned the movie to her!)

Not being a “movie soundtrack expert”, I was totally unprepared for what I heard. (If you do know the soundtrack for The Birds, you’re probably having a good chuckle right now.)

There’s no music! None. Zilch.

In fact, most of the movie is silent except for the dialogue. What other movie director besides Hitchcock would have enough confidence to attempt this? There’s no scary music when the birds are attacking people. No sustained bass notes when a character is walking down a creepy hallway. No sudden blasts of brass and percussion when something surprising happens. No music at all: just like in real life.

Shocking, no?

But we do hear birds sounds. Lots of them. Chirping, cawing, crowing, and flapping. And what’s really cool about the bird sounds is that they were created electronically, using a synthesizer. Real bird recordings, apparently, sounded too polite and charming. Hitchcock need something more harsh and sinister, and that’s where the synth came in. He found a German musician named Oskar Sala, who used a synth called the Trautonium. Many of the sounds in the movie, like people hammering wood to barricade their windows against the birds, were created with the Trautonium. Pretty amazing!

Have a listen to the phonebooth scene.

(BTW, there have been various attempts at composing a conventional musical soundtrack for The Birds. I watched a few on YouTube and thought they made the scenes too “syrupy” and predictable. Hitchcock was a genius for leaving the music out.)

If you want a fun treat, I found this short video where Evan Hunter, one of the movie’s co-writers, reveals what the original ending was going to be. VERY different!

What’s your nomination for most radical movie soundtrack? Leave a comment so we can all check it out.

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