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Arts & Entertainment


Danny Elfman

Lesson time 14:15 min

There is no right or wrong instrument to convey a certain emotion. Danny shows you ways you can build tone, energy, and movement through your choices in instrumentation as well as how to treat, prepare, and play your instruments.

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] - This is a five octave extended marimba. And what it means by extended is that a normal marimba might stop somewhere up in here, but this one goes down to the bottom. I collect marimbas and all kinds of tuned percussion. This is one of the few things in my collection that was made this last decade. Most of my collection starts at about 1903 and goes through the-- what I call the golden days of tuned percussion, would be the '20s to the '40s. And I was lucky enough to get a fantastic access to some great old instruments. But the thing about-- [SOUND OF THE MARIMBA PLAYING] The thing about me and marimbas, as much as I love them, I use them only as a tool to experiment with rhythms. I'm not a marimba player, not by a long shot. So-- [SOUND OF THE MARIMBA PLAYING] So the point is, when I'm playing on a marimba, I'm doing simple stuff because my background in percussion is on five tone instruments from the Gamelan, five tone instruments from West Africa. So even when I'm playing a full marimba, I tend to play it as if I was playing that balafon. [SOUND OF THE MARIMBA PLAYING] But I love these instruments. This has always been one of my passions. One of my-- one of these days, maybe I'll even learn how to play it like a real instrument. But it's what I bang on at 2 o'clock in the morning, and I just love the ability to make noise. And I do work out ideas that I'll use in scores. [SOUND OF THE MARIMBA PLAYING] And I'll just work out things, get ideas. Obviously, none of my playing on a marimba are going to end up likely in a score. Other things, yes, perhaps, but these instruments are much, much better played by the fantastic percussionists that I frequently work with. [SOUND OF THE MARIMBA PLAYING] I just bang on them. That's all I do. I make noise. [MUSIC PLAYING] What do I start with when I'm writing? Instrumentally, orchestrationally, what am I starting with? I may want to just be working in a broad overall sense and just be working literally on a piano, even though the piano won't stay in the score. And it may be that the first idea I'm hearing in my head is some short ostinato on marcato strings, and I'm really going to start with that. And it may be the opposite. It may be I'm really starting with long gentle strings, and I'm looking for a sample that will allow me to create something that there's nice, slow string sound that I'm looking for, that doesn't have any attack and doesn't have any sudden release. So it just depends. Moment on moment, what I'm feeling in my head is the first thing I want to listen to, and it could be anything from a prepared piano to a synthesizer to orchestral sounds to just a raw piano. By prepared piano, for those of you who don't know what that means, that's where you take the strings and you put metal or wood or different things between the strings. So they're going-- instead of da da da da da da da da da, they're going thud, clang, cling...

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.

I learnt many useful experience from Danny which truly is from work experience but not only from books.

Danny is fantastic. Great work ya'll. Well done.

Danny's reflections on dealing with directors, and producing what they want and how to find it, were most useful to me.

I'm a music nerd and Danny Elfman fan who wanted to know how his brain worked. Totally fascinating!


Suzanne W.

Excellent ideas in this lesson. Sampling an unusual instrument so they can perform with an orchestra is a delightful way to keep the original idea created on say some old marimba and bring it into the recording. I do agree with Danny about samples of strings and certainly woodwinds, most of time they are not convincing. It is better to have a real musician playing those instruments. One needs to decide what they want to do with a sample, which is why sampling an real non-traditional orchestral instrument makes total sense.

Sarah Jane P.

@Masterclass - there is a 'glitch' or subliminal flash just after the cut-away to the bouquet of percussive hammers. I've watched the "metal and wood" clip in this lesson a few times, and I saw it once, replayed but didn't see it, replayed again in case I missed the spot, and saw it again... it is not on the full screen, but a cut-a-way or picture-within-a-picture that looks like an audio player - at 10pm (WNW) and 20% off centre. Back to the intriguing genius of Danny Elfman and his terrific masterclass...

Ethan F.

Would be interesting to compare the same piece of music recorded with an orchestra and with samples (with the best sounds possible) !

Marcus M.

I remember seeing someone play the marimba with 4 mallets for the first time. That was incredible! Mallets instruments are great and minor tweaks can make the same instrument sound drastically different.