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Arts & Entertainment

Themes and Melodies

Danny Elfman

Lesson time 13:24 min

A theme or melody can be everything and nothing at all; it can come easily or take a long time. Using examples from some of his most well-known scores, Danny teaches you how to create and identify themes and melodies for your film’s score.

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] DANNY ELFMAN: What makes a melody a melody? A melody can be as simple as a bass drum, it could be as complicated as a full blown theme, and it could be everything in between. There's a movie called "Dead Presidents" I did, and really, what became the melody was three bass drums. [MUSIC PLAYING - "DEAD PRESIDENTS THEME"] (SINGING) Bom bom bom, bom, bom. Bom bom bom-- [SPEAKING NORMALLY] But now, I get hired years later by Brian De Palma, "Mission Impossible," and he goes, I want a theme-- something like you did for "Dead Presidents." And I'm going, I didn't have a theme for "Dead Presidents." And I listened to it, and I go, oh, yeah, there was those three bass drums. So that was the tune to "Dead Presidents." Now, for Brian, I gave him a little more of an involved thematic piece than that, but then I also realized that, you got to be able to break melodies down. Even if it's a longer melody, I got to break it down to just little bits, how to express that. So what is a melody, and what kind of melody do you need in your film? There's absolutely no answer for that, because if it's a classically themed film, and it calls upon it, you may be asked to do a beautiful melody, a melody that one could hum, a melody that acts-- gets in your mind. I grew up on these beautiful melodies of Maurice Jarre-- "Doctor Zhivago," "Lawrence of Arabia." These were your big classical melodies that you heard, and you kept in your mind forever. And then also, out of the era of "Jaws" and many others, much more simplified versions of what is a melody. "Edward Scissorhands" was certainly a melodic score. It had two very clear full melodies, but I was able to use little bits of them frequently, like in-- [MUSIC PLAYING - "STORYTIME"] (SINGING) Dah dah dah, or dah dah-dah dah. [SPEAKING NORMALLY] That's it. That's all I need to do because I was given enough opportunity to express the full melody that, now, we only need a tiny little bit of it. In "Alice in Wonderland" I really dealt with it much more scientifically. I wanted to be able to take just the rhythm before the melody comes in-- [MUSIC PLAYING - "ALICE'S THEME"] (SINGING) Bom bom bom bom bom, bom bom bom bom bom, bom bom bom bom bom. [SPEAKING NORMALLY] And OK, that's all I'm going to use, and use it clearly enough that, if I hear that, I know something's happening. Alice is on the move. She's feeling confident. There's something is going on. That's all I need to say. So I was learning by then that you could really take things, if you fragment them out, and the film will allow you to use these fragments. You can create a lot of memorable bits where you can go, oh, that's the theme from Alice. Oh, no, that's the theme from-- no, that's the theme from-- it's all the same theme I'm just using the introduction independently. I'm using the chords leading into the first part of the melody independently, and I'm using this big tune, finally, when we get to the ...

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.

Some very useful input - especially the personal side of it. Love Dannys music!

This was a wonderful insight into Danny Elfman's process.

I was surprised by the genuine passion and the sincere effort to transmit his knowledge and experience starting from his uncommon path of learning. I

I loved this class! You don't have to be an aspiring composer to enjoy it. I really appreciate Elfman's passion, originality and perspective.


Suzanne W.

I like the idea that a melody can be anything, a rhythmic pattern (bass drum) or a simple two or three note theme. I know that often I struggle with a theme or melody because I have felt it needs to be a 8-16 beautiful, epic and dramatic piece. How refreshing to know that even the shortest and most simple melody can be beautiful, epic and memorable. Thanks, Danny!

A fellow student

I remember hearing a story once where Danny said he almost lost the main theme for Batman... he got hit with the tune while he was on an airplane, and he ran into the bathroom with his cassette recorder to sing it, but when he got home to work on it he couldn't hear it over the plane engines. Can't remember where I heard that!

Ryan W.

I loved this and totally agree! I can't wait for the little nuggets of wisdom these courses will have in them!


I understand licensing music is expensive, but a lot could be gained if more examples from his scores and how he shifts themes to be used in different ways were presented.

Marcus M.

Seeing his uncertainty is a great reminder that sometimes we don’t know what we have created...