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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.

This class was really inspiring. I've been Elfman's fan since I was a kid and now I'm getting into music too having him as a role model. I hope some day I could do music as complex and wonderfull as he does.

I am a lifelong songwriter who has been dipping my toe into scoring. I found this class very heartening and was delighted at how My-People Danny is. Above all this class helped me feel confident that I know enough and have what it takes to do this, that my skills and instincts are on the money. Thank you, Danny!

So good! Can’t believe Danny’s self-taught. It’s helpful, inspiring, entertaining. There’s a quote of his I’ll remember for a long time.

Danny is amazing on any levels. Most importantly He presents authentically. I think that is a huge key to his success! What a great cause. I love his approach to Process and getting things done.


Antonia T.

Very cool score. I love the use of accents for creating an unsettling atmosphere (like Stravinsky does in Le sacré du printemps).

tuphr N.

i'm fine with the rhythms in the second piece, it's the harmony that I find interesting, it seems to gravitate around the key of B, but with a lot of shifting up a semitone here and down again to create that unsettling feeling. Great lesson looking right at the music!

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+ 🤣🤣🤣