Herrmann was born in New York City. His father encouraged musical activity, taking him to the opera, and encouraging him to learn the violin. After winning a small composition prize at the age of thirteen, he decided to concentrate on music, and went to New York University where he studied with Percy Grainger. After early work as a conductor, he went to work as a composer for CBS.
There he met Orson Welles, and wrote scores for his Mercury Theater broadcasts as well as for the famous adaptation of H. G. Wells War of the Worlds. When Welles moved to movies, Herrmann went with him, writing the scores for Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), although the score for the latter, like the film itself, was heavily edited by the studio.
Herrmann also continued to work as a conductor at CBS, and in 1940 became principal conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra. While there he was a champion of Charles Ives' music, which was generally ignored at that time.
Hermann is most closely associated with the director Alfred Hitchcock. He wrote the scores for every Hitchcock film from The Trouble with Harry (1956) though to Marnie (1964), a stretch which included Vertigo and North by Northwest. He oversaw the sound design in The Birds (1963), although there was no actual music in the film as such, just electronically created bird sounds.
The music for the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) was only partly by Herrmann, and the two most crucial pieces of music in the film - the song, "Que Sera Sera", and the cantata played in the Royal Albert Hall (which is by Arthur Benjamin) - are not actually by Herrmann at all (although he did re-orchestrate the cantata). However, this film did give Herrmann an acting role: he is the orchestra conductor in the Albert Hall scene.
Herrmann's most famous music is probably from another Hitchcock film, Psycho. The screeching violin music heard during the shower scene (a scene which Hitchcock originally suggested have no music at all) is probably one of the most famous moments from all film scores.
His score for Vertigo is just as masterful. In many of the key scenes Hitchcock essentially gave the film over to Herrmann, whose melodies, echoing Richard Wagner's Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, dramatically conveys Scotty's obsessive love for the woman he imagines to be Madeleine.
Herrmann's relationship with Hitchcock came to an end when the latter rejected a score for Torn Curtain. Herrmann subsequently moved to England, and was hired by Francois Truffaut to write the score for his Fahrenheit 451.
From the 1950's into the 1970's, Herrmann applied his unique musical genius to a series of fantasy films including Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Jason & the Argonauts, Mysterious Island, The Three Worlds of Gulliver, and It's Alive
Herrmann's last film scores included Obsession for Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. He died in his sleep one day after the final recording sessions for Taxi Driver in 1975 (the movie is dedicated to his memory) in Los Angeles, California.
Herrmann's music is typified by frequent use of ostinati (short repeating patterns), novel orchestration and, in his film scores, an ability to portray character traits not altogether obvious from other elements of the film. He won an Oscar for All That Money Can Buy (1941), his second film score. In 1992 a documentary, Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann, was made about him.