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Arts & Entertainment

Changing Your Approach: Milk

Danny Elfman

Lesson time 05:19 min

Using Milk as a case study, Danny explores how a literal approach to scoring for the script isn’t necessarily the right decision and how improvisation can often be the missing piece to the puzzle.

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 was working on a movie called "Milk" with Gus Van Zandt, and his first impulses was Harvey Milk was an opera fan, and we should do, in the score, something operatic. It's got drama. It's got all the stuff. And I wrote, like, 12 minutes of music that was very operatic. I was listening to opera, and I wrote all this stuff. And I was doing a big playback, his first big playback, and I had about a dozen scenes and bits laid out. But the operatic ones-- I could feel it myself while we were listening to it. It's just not really working. It's just not working. And he finished it, and he said, I think the opera idea was just a bad idea, and I couldn't argue with him. So what I ended up with, in "Milk," was actually the antithesis of where I began, the structured feeling, operatic, because it was actually a semi improvisational moment. And it was a little bit jazzy, and it had kind of a loose underpinning. There was a bit of a tune. There was a saxophone. It couldn't have been farther from the initial intent, but when I started thinking along that line, something looser, something more-- feeling a little more improvisational, something that has less structured feel to it-- it started feeling right for the tone of the film. Gus and I started with the character. Analytically, it's like opera because he listened to opera. Opera was a big part of his life. We should make opera. That's analytical. It didn't work. What it came down to was, I looked again at the tone of the film. It had a very dreamy feel to it. It had a very kind of loose, easy quality to it-- the way he went in and out of scenes, and Harvey's love scenes, and they were done in a very expressionistic kind of way. I just rethought it from the ground up. Harmonically, I started thinking of, like, more dissonance in the harmony and in the structure of the harmonies. And I still came up with the tune because I wanted there to still be a theme, a tune, but I didn't play it a lot. Rather than the kind of film where you're constantly alluding-- that's the Korngold process, of like, it's there all the time. You're, like, I'm here, I'm here, I'm here, and all the clever ways you can do that. This score didn't ask for that, and you have to constantly adjust yourself to the needs of the film. I only needed to play it three times in the whole movie, so it didn't even barely feel like his theme. [MUSIC - "GIVE 'EM HOPE"] I don't like to bring in something at the end of the movie that you never hear earlier, that's out of the blue. I'd like to, at least, go back and implant enough seeds thematically that when it comes back, it feels-- OK, I'm comfortable. Yeah, OK, I get it. This is where you started here earlier, and you used it again here, and I'm coming back to this place. But I definitely didn't want to overdo it either, which in a different kind of score, you would approach it very different. Really minimal use of melody. Use only where you need to...

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.

Another inspirational class for me who has no real music background - a lot to learn from

Measure time in small increments. Consider feelings as a major director. Like writing a story, music when used to complement a story becomes the story. Small things matter.

i know nothing about music and film music, but Danny's class taught me a lot especially when it comes to appreciating music. the class notes are incredibly rich with references. take this class

I'm so happy that Danny Elfman did a masterclass; I appreciated that he talked about film scoring in a way that can pertain to emerging composers (and not just hollywood). I loved hearing about his compositional process and his anecdotes. I've come away feeling more prepared and inspired to continue on this career path. Also, what a great guy! Hilarious and such a real person.


Suzanne W.

I love the idea of improvising with the orchestra and creating a theme or music for mood. It can only happen with real musicians playing together and is magical.

Troy C.

it would help to keep all the lessons for a particular instructor all accessible in the same page, i don't know what lesson i'm on how many are left.., did i watch this lesson already?? when i logged off my computer i Bookmark the home page for Master class in order to pick up where i left off.

A fellow student

Hi, I have a question: When Danny speaks of giving indications to the orchestra to ''center around this note and you are just going to play overtones and harmonics randomly'', what exactly does he mean? does he mean to play chords that has that note in its harmony regardless if its diminished, or other dissonant chords? Thank you.