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Arts & Entertainment

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.

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


[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.


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

Absolutely loved this! So inspiring! Big fan of Danny's music, and to hear him talk about his experiences and processes was a really joy. OK - gonna watch the whole class again now.

This class shows how to look around and find your possibilities within your own musical niche.

Really liked. As I am a composer, I missed a bit of more technical stuff, team inside work, etc.

I'm a 62 year-old musician/composer who has gainful employment performing but enjoys the occasional soundtrack job. This MasterClass has inspired me to dig deeper and put more time into learning the craft to another level. Thank you Danny


Luis Alberto T.

12 años intentando perfeccionar y buscar mas informacion que me acerque a mis objetivos, gracias por esta informacion

Antonia T.

I always have thought, and still do, that having classical education is always a plus, never a minus. If music theory is boring for you, you just didn't find the right teacher. Music education with good teachers never kills your musicality, on the contrary, expands it and makes life easier. Danny Elfman is clearly a musical genius but, as he says, everything would have been a bit easier for him with a formal strong musical training. Not that he needed it, but it would have helped him to write things faster and easier (like when he was on the airplane and couldn't write the notes of a melody he was inventing and had to go to the toilet to record it, that was funny, actually). Thanks, Danny. This lesson has been really inspiring.

Suzanne W.

I have extensive classical training and have found it limiting in a few ways as I explore new music and composing. I look forward to getting out of my box, looking at my strengths and learning how to create new types of music in new ways. Thanks, Danny

Laura T.

It's interesting- both my husband and I have decades of formal training and performance experience in music, but if you asked either of us to score a film we'd be in some serious trouble. When Danny was playing the marimba it was excellent- we really want to hear who he thinks can play it. Evelyn Glennie maybe? We should also keep in mind that Beethoven was very deaf by Symphony #4 & wrote by resting his teeth on the piano, so no excuses. In the immortal words of Nike, just do it.

Patrick W.

I very much relate to how Danny approaches composing music. I tried the school approach by doing classes with Berklee College. I took two semesters of Music Theory and I SUUUUUUUCKED at it. The worst was trying to assign those fucking roman numerals to chords. Yet, the teachers were always impressed with my compositions. Many times I got feedback from my teachers that basically said, "You really struggle with formal structure, but you have a great ear for what just works." I guess that comes from years and years of collecting and studying film music from the greats like Elfman, Williams, Horner and Goldsmith.

Kenneth I.

Interesting "note" about the gamelan playing. I wonder if Danny ever practiced playing the Jegog, a Balinese tonal percussion instrument. I fell in love with that sound via the soundtrack to the Japanese anime Akira, composed by the group Geinoh Yamashiro. I had the pleasure of meeting them during an open concert they gave in an area of Shinjuku, Tokyo when I was living there in the 90's. They invited audience members to come up and try out the exotic instrument. They were quite surprised and tickled when I banged out the main patterns from the soundtrack. :)

simon B.

Dude I can relate to a lot although I have not been as active in my twenties or as ambitious of what I wish and where I think I'm supposed to be in life. Now in my mid twenties I'm starting to find out.

Umi Y.

I am self-taught and have the same problem Danny has. The key even the scale does not make any sense to me. I just can find the right key and right scale on any instruments I have immediately and intuitively. I just know how to write music on DAW but cannot tell why. Those are my strengths while I have great difficulty in communicating with other educated composers and musicians which always made me nervous when working with those educated people... Thank Danny for sharing great experiences and giving great advices!

Timothy P.

Love this class! Danny's list of weaknesses are exactly the same as I have...including the fact that as he said in an earlier lesson he is bad at math. It's nice to see that someone as successful as he can overcome these obstacles by focusing on his strengths.