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Arts & Entertainment


Danny Elfman

Lesson time 11:55 min

When you have a disorganized mind like Danny’s, studio and project organization are key to a successful career. He shares his process for organizing his studio, how he chooses his software, and the big board that keeps track of his output.

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] - The number one law, the first commandment, is you must finish on time. I've learned to get into my high gear when I need to. When I'm feeling it, when there's no time left, I can work super fast. I organize my sounds as best I can. And I bring out my board with minutes and cues to force me to organize my time, because I won't do it on my own. I'll spend forever on each cue. I need an external way to force myself to move at a certain pace. And that's my spotting notes, my big board, as I call it, where I have my number of days. Every night I finish, I cross off another day and I count how many minutes I have left. And the board's telling me I have exactly 27 days left. And if 27 days-- if I have much more than 50 minutes and 27 days, that's not good. I've got to push harder. You know, I never want to leave myself with more than two minutes a day to write, because that's about as much as I can do. Meaning that I'm going to get in a really active cue, if it's an action movie, where it's going to be slower, because the big, detailed action music, minute and a half, is a good day. But then there's also going to be some moments where it's more ethereal, it's more ambient, or it's a romantic section, and I might get two and a half minutes in that day. But two minutes is the max. And if I have any time over two minutes a day-- hopefully, a minute 45-- that's where I could breathe and I'm comfortable. But over two minutes, there's a red light going off, an alarm, saying, you've got to move your ass, or you're going to be in trouble. So that's how I organize my time. I make these things that are externally there. They're easy to follow and they're pushing me, they're kicking my ass, they're moving me along, because otherwise, I just won't do it. The big board. What does that mean? It's something I started with my music editor Bill Abbott. And it's literally a big piece of project board. And in it is the section at the top with the number-- however many days from the spotting session. And in those numbers are two numbers-- a countdown and a countup. So there's one set of numbers that starts with a 1 and goes to 60. There's another that starts at 60 and is going to 1. Because I want to go, okay, I'm on the 11th day, I've got this many days left. And then I cross off every day. So when I come in, when I start in the morning, I can go, all right, I have this many Xs, this many days left. Woo, look at all those cues. Because every single cue has got a box with the number, the name of the cue, and I will exit out as I go. And of course, you know, I want to walk in here and see a lot of Xs. But in that box is also the length of the cue. So it could be deceptive. I'll walk in and go, I'm doing pretty good, look at all those Xs. Then I go, oh, 32 seconds, 15 seconds, 40 seconds, 10 seconds, crap. And then I look towards the end of the board, I got four and a half minutes, seven minutes,...

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.

I really enjoyed how honest and transparent Danny was!

I learned that trusting your gut is important, even if you have no idea how the score will be received. The doing aspect is the most important, don't worry about the reception until you start honing your craft and landing jobs. My goal is to score video games, and Danny Elfman is one of my favorite music artists/composers so I felt that this would be doubly appropriate and applicable.

A good balance of general principles and technical specifics.

Espectacularmente personal, cernano y directo. La información que nos regala va mas allá de la simple composición. Quedé con ganas de más.


Suzanne W.

"You must finish on time", this is an important for a creative person! I like how Danny gets himself organized and knows how much time he needs to create a score. I need a big board!

Neil B.

Shout out for DP! Glad to know I am in good company....better up my game though :)

Ryan W.

I definitely need to figure out time management, but it is difficult when there are no time markers to follow like there are with film scores. I mainly figure out the melodies I need and then have to figure out how to arrive at each benchmark or central moments of the concert band piece. However, it at times feels like aimless wandering, and it can be difficult to figure out how to give it more direction.

Tom S.

Can anyone figure out what the red text means on the Big Board? What makes it “source?” When I hear source, I think diagetic, so... does that mean it’s a) mixed differently or b) an existing song placed/synch in the film? I presume it’s a cue to skip or a song to write around?? Maybe he doesn’t know the exact placement of the song they’ll be putting there so he’s waiting on music editor?? K, I’ll finish the vid now and see if he answers this Q. -Producer/Composer/Lyricist Tom Stroll

simon B.

Yes, what is "making music" if one does not get enough done in time? Great lesson!

Joel S.

This was exactly the kind of lesson I was hoping to see in Danny Elfman's Masterclass. Once you have a pretty good handle on music composition... the things that really make or break you in the professional world will be process, organization, and workflow. Love the idea of his "big board" with it's count up and count down to delivery. I took detailed notes as he discussed the essential members of his team - the orchestrator and the music editor.

Barry S.

sooooo. this is more an inteiew of whats been done instead of instuctional ,,,heres how to create, im interested to a point and mostly bored. .. a genius writer...but a class....??? heres what i did... do you aproach it from scratch is what im looking for , a fly on the wall... not here yet so far for me


This was a fantastic lesson. To really see and hear about his workflow was fantastically useful. Organizing is a big part of the job, but how to approach it when you’re starting out can be difficult to formulate. I really appreciate seeing this video.

Marcus M.

I haven’t heard from DP in a while. I remember it was well used about 10 years ago. I think I might dive into Logic myself (currently using GarageBand)...

André V.

In Digital Performer you can create Chunks, which looks very helpful as I see now how Danny is using this. Is there a way to work this way in Logic? Maybe some workaround that doesn't need opening lots of project files?