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Arts & Entertainment

Storytelling Through Music

Danny Elfman

Lesson time 10:45 min

To be a film composer, you must first be a student of cinema and film scores. Danny highlights how various scores throughout film history have elevated the director’s vision as well as influenced his own work.

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.


[FOREBODING MUSIC] - Filmmaking, as a collaborative art, how seriously should it be taken? Well, that question applies to every part of filmmaking. Should films be taken seriously? Should any part of cinema be taken seriously? Is it all just light entertainment that doesn't take itself seriously? And since the 1900s began and films began, that's a question that's been going on and on and on. Film music is just as important-- no more, no less-- than filmmaking. So if you believe that filmmaking has value and filmmaking can be important, then the music can and is as well. So your job as a composer is exactly that important. It's however important that you take the subject of cinema. When I started watching the movies, I'm guessing I was around 5 or 6. Because I remember the first movie that scared the crap out of me and kind of started a bit of a lifelong obsession was a movie starring Peter Lorre called "The Beast with Five Fingers." Now "The Beast with Five Fingers" was a horror movie from actually the '40s or '50s. But this Peter Lorre character became a lifelong obsession with me. And oddly, the hand that was pursuing him-- because that's what it was about. It was the hand of a pianist that he was instrumental in killing, this pianist. Then he was haunted by the hand that continued to play the piano and-- whenever he was alone-- would come after him. And it would be climbing up his shirt. And he would be pulling it down. It was always going for his neck. And anybody who knows their classic films-- Peter Lorre, who I identified with greatly, was better than any actor has ever been in terms of showing angst and the pain of a situation and the horror of a moment when the hand was going up. And I loved it. That had me. And I couldn't have been more than six years old. Because it started lifelong dreams of being pursued by an amputated hand. And if you look around my studio, you'll see I'm obsessed with hands. I collect hands-- hands that are human, hands that are not human, anatomical hands, wax hands, real hands, mummy hands. And so the things that frighten me are now the things that I stayed obsessed with. But I also noticed there was a great piece of music in there. Now I learned later that this was Max Steiner doing the score. The Steiner score was magnificent. And I didn't know who this was. But I began noticing music but not really paying attention. I didn't know the name Max Steiner. When I was about 11, I saw "The Day the Earth Stood Still." And "The Day the Earth Stood Still," of course, was scored by Bernard Herrmann. And this time, I noticed the music. The music-- something moved me. It grabbed hold of me. And I actually went and checked who wrote the music. And I got to a point where, by the time I was an early teen, I'd go, oh, I'll bet that's Miklos Rozsa. I'll bet that's Korngold. That's got to be Korngold. And I was getting proud of myself for being able to hear the styles of different compose...

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.

Danny gave me the courage to continue the journey.

Danny’s openness and willing to share his history, the good and not so good, was really insightful. Great, well placed life lessons and wrap up.

Excellent course. Unique input from a unique talent.

Words cannot describe what this man has done for me with his music AND his masterclass. Danny is a testament to childlike wonder and imagination.


Antonia T.

Herrmann, Steiner, Waxman (all Jewish, by the way, like Elfman), and Williams. Fascinating lesson. Thanks!

Suzanne W.

In recent years ( and after teaching a class in Music in Film) I have become very aware of how the music tells part or all of the story in a scene. The role of the music is very interesting when the purpose it to "confuse" the emotions of the film. When this happens, it makes the scene even more memorable.

Limor S.

Just listened through Storytelling through Music and this is great. Danny's description is compelling and informative.

tuphr N.

That's great hearing about the kind of movies Danny saw when he was young. They must have influenced his track "Weird Science" - which I didn't know he sang until I saw the video on YouTube the other day. It's a brilliant track that I was singing at high school when I saw that film on Video and told all my friends about it, we used to roll around laughing and quoting lines from it in class!

Rob H.

As I said much realer, I am finding it interesting that I have had similar influences. I remember “The Beast with Five Fingers”, one of my favorites. I must have been a monster kid. Being that I am very new to this and not even knowing where to begin. I have found, for me I tend to create music based on how I feel at the moment. I have never tried write to just film or a video.

A fellow student

This is intense, and I relate very much to the historical and inspirational factors Danny mentions. I used to have an unplaceable compulsion or fear about severed hands too, until I overcame it. Thing was always my favorite character in The Addams Family. I duly agree about Peter Lorre’s performances. One time on a cop show I was on as an extra, the production entered and filmed in the tomb at Hollywood Forever cemetery. I happened to notice a photo of Peter Lorre nearby and realized it was his resting place. I was shocked no-one else knew who he was. It was flabbergasting. I held a moment of silence in reverence and respect for the amazing screencraft of those who had come before. Indeed, North By Northwest and the other masterpieces Danny mentions here are absolutely astounding...

Sebastián V.

This lesson encouraged me to search more about other film music composers and not only the composers I like. By the way, I was listening to Korngold's Kings Row theme and for me it influenced not only Star Wars opening theme, but also Superman theme. Maybe a lot of people know this already, but discovering this is kind of exiting for me :D

Ryan R.

Right at the end... “You don’t want to give up your hand” — Danny, was that an on purpose pun in reference to your creeping hand obsession? Lol

Les P.

Great to hear how Mr. Elfman awoke to the process. For me it was Maurice Jarre's Shogun score.

A fellow student

Excellent chapter. To echo a previous comment, the photo of John Williams is of the late saxophonist Johnny Williams and not John Williams the film composer. Given that Williams is likely the best known and most awarded film composer living and that many photos exist of him in the 70s (the period Danny is describing), a correction to the video would be most appreciated and would only help to maintain the very high level of quality that Danny brings to the entire class. Thanks for the excellent content!