Arts & Entertainment, Music

Advice to New Composers

Danny Elfman

Lesson time 06:27 min

As a composer with no classical training, Danny offers a different perspective on getting into the business. He encourages you to find what makes you unique, pursue what you can do best, and promote that aspect of yourself to be heard.

Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars

Topics include: Play to Your Strengths · The Informal Education


[MUSIC PLAYING] - I'm frequently asked about my musical education, and most people already know that I'm basically self-taught. But I just want to clarify that, that doesn't mean I don't believe in the value of a musical education. And now, you have to realize, the son of two school teachers-- not one, but two-- going off into a street group is not a happy moment. There was this-- this thing that tends to happen in your 20s, where you get these lofty ambitions of where you think you should be at every moment in your life, and you're not there. And I go, there's a certain point where I think I just had to realize, I'm not going back to school. It just isn't going to happen. So I've described how I began to teach myself to write and teach myself to transcription of music, and I taught myself many things. And I really was committed to teaching myself what I could do, and then I would try to take lessons, and it was just-- my brain was a sieve. I showed no propensity, but if I could dig into a piece of music, I knew that I could carry it. I could hold it in my head. I could write it all down. I knew how to take that piece of music apart and put it back together, and yet I couldn't read a fucking scale to save my life. I would do it, and I would learn it. And two weeks later, it was gone. I had an equal problem with lyrics, and I was in a band. I was like, I can't remember words. I could remember melodies. I could remember tunes. And so I learned to work with my strengths and my weaknesses. And my weaknesses were vast and many, but I knew I had some strengths. And so I tried to find those and focus on those that-- that can carry me through a narrow path in life. Unfortunately, it didn't leave open many options, and probably, that was a good thing. [MUSIC PLAYING] I remember being interested in gamelan music. I love interlocking rhythms, and Willie Winant, the percussionist that I grew up with, he used to do exercises. And this is stuff that Steve Reich and many composers I've learned to love since then did-- a thing called phasing. And he would say, OK, play this on the wood block. Just play this rhythm and hold it, and I'm going to slowly speed up, but don't you speed up. I'm going to slowly speed up, and we're going to constantly shift the interlocking position of these two rhythms against each other. And it was an exercise I loved, and it was also an exercise that I learned, I can do this. I can do this really well. I can hold this in place and not get distracted by something else that pulls me off. I can hold my place here. And phasing was something I loved, so the complex interlocking of the gamelan instruments became something I was really fascinated in and, I think, because I've always been fascinated and loved complex interlocking rhythms. So I wander into-- and my apologies to Cal Arts and Disney for the story I'm about to tell because it's not anybody's fault, but my own. And I'm apologizing in advance...

About the Instructor

From The Simpsons theme to the soundtracks of Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and The Nightmare Before Christmas, Danny Elfman’s compositions are original, memorable, and exuberantly weird. Now the Oingo Boingo founder and four-time Oscar nominee shares his unconventional (and uncensored) creative process. Step into Danny’s studio and learn his techniques for evoking emotion and elevating a story through music.

Featured MasterClass Instructor

Danny Elfman

Oscar-nominated composer Danny Elfman teaches you his eclectic creative process and his approach to elevating a story with sound.

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