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Arts & Entertainment

Crossing the Line

Danny Elfman

Lesson time 08:05 min

There is a line between influence, homage, and plagiarism. Danny illustrates how the line is drawn, when you have overstepped the boundaries, and how to rise above and maintain originality.

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.


[INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC PLAYING] - This is a subject that we don't talk about a lot. And I'm calling it crossing the line. And crossing the line means where the line is between homage, inspiration, and plagiarism. And you may think it's simple, but it's not. I was just talking with the composer, John Powell, yesterday about one of his scores and, like, how I thought it was just so incredibly effective. And he says, well, of course, you know, you know that kind of came from a Schubert symphony. I go, no, it didn't. In your mind, it came from Schubert. But I know what you're talking about. And it's not that. It was inspired by that. That gave you a feel. It gave you a thought. And you turned it into something absolutely yours. And it's something that I've heard imitated about 20, 30 times since you did that. And that piece was for "Bourne Identity." So there is a case where it's inspiration. But there's a much bigger issue with crossing the line. And here's where I learned it. Context is everything. I was doing my first film, "Pee-wee's Big Adventure." Pee-wee walks out with a cowboy hat, Western suit, and a pair of guns. And I go, doodle ooh, with an ocarina kind of a sound. And Danny Gold, who was the head of the music department at that time and all the library and everything. He took me aside. He goes, you can't do that. I go, oh, no, isn't there this rule that if you don't use more than a certain number of notes from something, because there was this common school of thought that you're allowed to use one bar or two bars or five notes or eight notes from something else and then go somewhere else after those number of notes. And you're okay. It's not plagiarism. He goes, doesn't exist. It's a absolute nonexistent thing-- got a lot of people seem to think exists. It's all about context. If you were doing a scene and explains it to me in detail where Pee-wee opens a door. And there's some clowns in there. And you use as a sound-- do, doo, loo, because I was said, I'm not doing, doo, doo, doo. That's Morricone. And he goes, no. It's like, in a different kind of scene, you can go, doodle do, do, do, do, with an ocarina, and it's fine. But as soon as you see guns on a cowboy hat, you can't even play the fucking ocarina. He says he owns it. That's it, period. It's the context. If you're trying to invoke a sound of another composer over an image that is in the vein of what they're conveying in the first place, don't do it. You've lost the battle. Now, let me start out by saying that when you get to plagiarism problems, it totally depends on the composer and if it goes to trial. And I've been down that road. It's hard, because if it goes ever in front of, like, a jury of people deciding, no matter what it is, it's a 50-50 chance. I've had more than a dozen lawsuits with "Edward Scissorhands" that goes all over the place-- the commercials, TV shows. And I try to look at the context each time. And I go, sometimes I hear, a...

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.

Very inspiring and informative! Enjoyed it very much.

Outstanding overview of his creative process, and the business of film scoring.

Thanks Danny Elfman for all information what you gift for me, for as. Its truth. I love my job, and after watching this masterclass, im convincend that im on the right way

It was great! I liked his energy and attention to detail. It was motivating as much as it was educational.


Antonia T.

My children and I love the Danny Elfman sound. We can recognise that he's the composer in a film in one second. His music has a strong personality & originality. We love it.

Suzanne W.

Creating a piece of music that doesn't remind someone of some other music is tough, There are only so many notes to use. However, knowing the context is important and something I hadn't considered.

Laura T.

That is great- they wanted it "More Elfman", definitely one of your better problems to have. He must've been thinking Batman but it would be funny if he was thinking Deadman's Party. You could even argue that is how you know you made it as a film composer. Or maybe they just wanted an ominous but propulsive angular ostinato in the low strings.

Quinn J.

It was a real pleasure hearing danny talk about originality and his style. When it comes to originality, I love referencing the composer Esquivel. He wrote casual music in the 60s for tv and films which was considered very restrictive creatively. But now we see his music as rather progressive for that genre. He found a way to make a boring song that was expected of him into something with hidden uniqueness. Or, he was just trying to satirize the genre!

Kenneth I.

This was, for me, a particularly interesting episode dealing with homage and plagiarism. I had just finished one of my early tracks within a couple of months of Tim Burton's original Batman movie coming out and, low and behold, the main theme was the exact melody from my track, only with different timing. I couldn't believe it but was thrilled and I've been a huge Danny Elfman fan ever since. Brings back memories of my original Ensoniq Mirage from my HS and college days.