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Music & Entertainment

Writing Feature Scores

Danny Elfman

Lesson time 16:01 min

To map out a score, you need to figure out the tone and identify the moments that define the film. Using examples from films of different genres, Danny shows how he reverse-engineered the scores to reflect key moments and the tonal landscape.

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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[MUSIC - DANNY ELFMAN] - What are you? - I'm Batman. [YELLING AND GRUNTING] - You begin with a feeling of a tone. My craziest story of how that happened was on "Batman," because it hit me on a 747 coming home from the Gotham City set. And I was on the way home, and I heard the beginning of the score, and I started to hear it more than the beginning. I started to hear this whole piece of music. Now, unfortunately for me-- most of you who are listening to this should be able to just take a piece of paper, take a napkin, and go dg-dg-dg-dg-dg-dg-dg-dg-dg, and you have it. I can't do that. I have no sense of solfege, meaning I can't just say, (VOCALIZING). OK, now on C, and then this is the , and here's-- I can't write without a keyboard. For me to write, I have to have a keyboard. And at that moment, it was just nothing but me and a Sony tape recorder. I had no keyboard. I had no access to anything. And so I couldn't make voice notes next to the fucking guy sitting next to me, because, I don't know, he just had that kind of vibe. So I kept running into the bathroom. And every time I'd come to the bathroom, I would stay there about five minutes, and I would do some notes, and try to-- now, these bathrooms in the old 747s are really noisy. And then I'd leave and I'd go back to my seat. 10 minutes, five minutes later, I'm back in the bathroom. I open the door, and I come out, and there's a flight attendant. Sir, are you OK? I'm fine. I'm fine! Go back to my seat. Five, 10 minutes later, I'm back in the bathroom again. Doing more. Doing more. OK, I'm hearing it, I'm hearing it, I'm hearing it. It's starting to make sense. Open the door, there's two flight attendants. And I did this, like, four or five times. Now, this was pre-9/11, obviously. But there was a point where I'd come out, and now all the flight crew is sitting there, and they're watching me really carefully. And I knew that when the plane landed-- this is what they did in these days-- they played a piece of music, they played a piece of composition or a pop song, and it was going to erase my memory, because I was holding onto it the whole flight. And sure enough, the plane lands, and they put on fucking "Yesterday" or "Hey Jude" or something-- a memory eraser. It's like one of those things that, oh, shit, not that. No, not that. Oh, not a Beatles song. I'm-- it's gone. That's it. The song has totally embedded itself in my mind, and this thing I was holding onto has evaporated to nothing. And so I get home, I run down to my studio, and I press the Play button, and now I'm hearing [BLOWING AIR] a little bit of my voice in the background. I'm going, oh, my god. And I just a little bit and a little bit. And then, finally, after listening for about 20 minutes, the different parts-- French horns, trumpets, this is the low brass, string ostinato-- it came back to me. And it came-- that was, in fact, exactly the "Batman Theme" as it plays in "Batman." ...

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.

Measure time in small increments. Consider feelings as a major director. Like writing a story, music when used to complement a story becomes the story. Small things matter.

So glad this was about what's going on in his brain and not about what's going on in his hardware.

I'm just getting into film scoring and listening to Danny's masterclass has made me even more excited to pursue this hectic and fulfilling career. Thanks!

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.


Antonia T.

I love Batman's theme. The music of the Batman films (both by Tim Burton and by Christopher Nolan - in Nolan's the music is by Hans Zimmer) is amazing. Beautiful, intriguing, dark, powerful. Danny's score here sounds a bit like Shostakovich. So cool.

Suzanne W.

Excellent, Danny. Capturing the mood and tone is important for the screenplay writer, but it is even more important for music to carry that tone to the viewer. So much intuition and music intelligence is in involved.

Pato C.

Danny's advice is perfectly in tune for any kind of creative endeavor, such as writing a script.

Marcus M.

Tone is very important. I like how he explains the differences (and similarities) in composing for live a action vs. animation...