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Arts & Entertainment

Real Time Listening: A Simple Plan

Danny Elfman

Lesson time 03:56 min

While listening to the score he wrote for A Simple Plan, Danny walks you through how he crafted it and explains his choices.

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.


DANNY ELFMAN: In "A Simple Plan," I wanted to take something that was kind of sweet and simple but mess it up. This is a story where everything goes wrong, where everything seems like good luck turns into bad luck, where somebody is going to find a bunch of money in a suitcase from a plane crash and it's going to turn into the worst thing that ever happened to him. And that was, like, the first time I got to mess something up, which I realized then over the course of my career that was really the most fun I had was messing things up. And in "A Simple Plan" I had a very simple melody. (HUMMING) "Ba da da da. Ba da da da." And I wanted to find a way to make that unsettling. And so I started just twanging, banging around in instruments, and the first thing I found was a banjo, an old banjo. And literally it's like, OK, I have an old banjo. I'm going to use this thing. I love this old, out-of-tune banjo. But the second thing that interested me more was taking a piano, playing three chords, but as it went up, part of the tuning went down and part of the tuning went up so that they were microtonally tuned. Now it may sound to your ears-- and perhaps I failed dismally and it just sounds like an out-of-tune piano playing "bum, bum, bum," and that's OK because that's unsettling in its own way. But in fact I put a lot of work into the microtuning to do something very specific that as it raises, it both raises and lowers simultaneously. So why don't we listen to that cue for the opening to "A Simple Plan"? [MUSIC PLAYING] There's the piano. There's the banjo. More out-of-tune banjo. And now the first leitmotif. (HUMMING) "Da da dum. Da da da da." And here's my melody. That kind of melody that on its own should be sweet, but the idea is that it's a sweet tune, but nothing feels sweet about this piece. Now we're going into a minor key, very slowly shifting the harmonics. (HUMMING) "Ba da ba. Da da da da da." So I've also got a background to this motif playing against time. (HUMMING) "Da da dum dum. Da da da da." Now chord changes that are rather traditional in a film sense. Now I'm thinking of my connection to Jerry Goldsmith with these chords. OK, so just looking at that much, the two things that I was having fun with was-- well, more than two things. There was the use of the banjo. There was the out-of-tune piano that was unsettling and then the introduction of a pattern of (HUMMING) "ba ba da da da dun. Dun da da da dun. Dun dun, dum, ba ga da ga gung." So it's kind of playing against the melody, which starts almost at the same time. So when the sweet tune comes in, the idea is that this feels wrong. There's something about it. It feels wrong. So I love this premise, and I had great fun with it because there's nothing more delightful as a composer than writing for a great downward spiral.

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.

This is an amazing class, I LOVE Danny's style and advice.

It helped me to realize that doubting yourself is a natural process everyone faces, and nothing without its obstacles.

Wonderful masterclass. Thanks to Danny for selflessly sharing his musical and life experience

This class taught me a lot about the composing process, workflow, and more. I found this information really valuable.


Suzanne W.

Wow! Brilliant. Music can create the emotions of chaos and confusion without the motion picture. That, to me, is the power of music within a film.

Kevin M.

This lesson is very cool. A good friend and my guitar mentor had a Helmholtz guitar fretted with 31 tones per octave. He played these brilliant tunes demonstrating both the purity of mathematically derived harmonies and the additional musical colors possible when we escape from standard musical temperament—as in "The Well Tempered Clavier"


It was surprisingly good about why people use microtones to partially destabilize the listener’s comfort so you know something’s up from the music. Contrasted with solid strings to show the listener’s character.