Music & Entertainment

Real Time Listening: The Unknown Known

Danny Elfman

Lesson time 5:14 min

Danny listens to the score he made for The Unknown Known and explains how creating the villain’s theme for this documentary was not as straightforward as you might think.

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.
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[CLICK OF A DIAL FOLLOWED BY STATIC] - "The Unknown Known," the story of Rumsfeld, Donald Rumsfeld-- wow, what a subject matter. What a character. There's nothing I like about Donald Rumsfeld. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are my two least favorite people in the world. But this is Donald Rumsfeld's story, and I'm going to score it. I tried to find a very simple leitmotif, a melody, and we established it like this. [MUSIC - "MAIN TITLES"] Real sweet. Very simple guitar. And here's my melody. And can we pause for a moment? What I like to point out here, and then we'll play it again, is that I'm intentionally not starting the melody, which is going to be a very simple melody-- (SINGING) da da da da, da da da da, da da da, da da da. (SPEAKING NORMALLY) Notice that I'm not starting on the downbeat because that's how we're used to hearing music. You hear an introduction. It goes, (SINGING) dun dun, dun dun, dun dun, dun dun, and then and 4 and da da, da-- (SPEAKING NORMALLY) so listen where I start this because this wasn't an accident. One more time please. [MUSIC - "MAIN TITLES"] So there, it started in a rather odd place, which is unsettling even if you don't know why it's kind of unsettling. It just didn't start where it felt like it should start. Now, I'm taking this very simple theme and letting it evolve into something that-- what is-- what is going on here? There's a mystery to it. The ostinato begins, and we've got just a simple minor key melody that I'm building. And this is going to get dark, and this is going to go places that are not happy places. B section because it's a full melody with an A and a B section in a very traditional way. And it ends in a classical (SINGING) da da da da da, da da. OK, let's hold it there, and I'm purposely ending it in a way that might be in an opera or a piece of Mozart. So this first statement is getting a melody. We don't know quite where it's coming from. We don't know what it's exactly saying, except this isn't necessarily going to be just a happy story. It's not so much, how do you write a theme for what is Donald Rumsfeld? That would just be a villain's theme. That would be Darth Vader. So we can't be on the nose. In other words, I can't go, Donald Rumsfeld, (SINGING - "THE IMPERIAL MARCH") dun, dun dun, dun-dun dun. (SPEAKING NORMALLY) That's the way I feel, but that's on the nose. So a better way to do it is to lay out something-- no, this is a film. It's a documentary. I'm not going to tell you who it is. It's about a man talking openly about his life. But I'm trying to say here that, yeah, it's all these things, but there's something going on here, and I'm just going to hint at it here in the beginning. I'm just going to give you a little hints of it. OK, this next queue, starting to mess it up a little bit more. Same motifs. [MUSIC - "MARIMBA FOGHORN"] There's an ostinato that's reminiscent of-- (SINGING) dun dun dun dun, dun-dun...

Music out of chaos

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.

Danny's class is a true inspiration. As someone who loves composing film music but never really made the leap, you've inspired me to go for it.

This has given me lots of perspective on the composing process. It's also been hugely reassuring to have the likes of Danny feel a failure and a fraud.

It was fantastic. New and different perspectives for these topics are immensely helpful in finding my own voice and style. Thank you!

Not long enough. Not enough focus on actual composing/working to picture.


Marcus M.

Interesting how he approached writing music for a film about a person/topic he did not like...


4:04 Bro most of us don't have a marimba lying around the house. The model you use is about $20k+ 🤣🤣🤣