Oscar-Nominated Composer Danny Elfman Teaches an Online Course on Writing Music for Film: A Look Inside His Creative Process

FYI: If you sign up for a Mas­ter­Class course by click­ing on the affil­i­ate links in this post, Open Cul­ture will receive a small fee that helps sup­port our oper­a­tion.

To have watched some of the great­est film and tele­vi­sion in the last thir­ty-five years is to have been immersed in the music of Mark Moth­ers­baugh and Dan­ny Elfman—two artists who have scored Hol­ly­wood block­busters and indie hits alike since the mid-eight­ies when they start­ed on TV’s Pee-wee’s Play­house and Tim Burton’s 1985 com­e­dy Pee-wee’s Big Adven­ture, respec­tive­ly. They also hap­pen to have played in two of the 1980’s weird­est, most exper­i­men­tal New Wave bands, Devo and Oin­go Boin­go.

Moth­ers­bough went on to score every­thing from Rugrats to Thor: Rag­narok, but he’s maybe best known for his work with Wes Ander­son. Like­wise, Elfman—who has worked with every­one from Gus Van Sant to Bri­an De Pal­ma to Peter Jack­son to Ang Lee—formed a cre­ative bond with Bur­ton, to such a degree that it’s near impos­si­ble to imag­ine a Tim Bur­ton film with­out a Dan­ny Elf­man score.

When Bur­ton first approached him for Pee-wee’s Big Adven­ture, the Oin­go Boin­go front­man was just about to release “Weird Sci­ence,” for the infa­mous John Hugh­es film of the same name. Already a band with a mas­sive cult fol­low­ing, they became pop stars, and Elf­man became one of the most dis­tinc­tive film com­posers of the last sev­er­al decades.

He scored Beetle­juice, Bat­man, Edward Scis­sorhands, Bat­man Returns, Sleepy Hol­low, The Night­mare Before Christ­mas, Corpse Bride, and, most recent­ly, Burton’s Dum­bo. Now he’s shar­ing his secrets for aspir­ing film com­posers every­where with his very own Mas­ter­class. “I’m going to tell you from my per­spec­tive,” he says in the trail­er above, “how I do these things”: things includ­ing instru­men­ta­tion, orches­tra­tion, melody, and tone—“the most impor­tant thing you’re going to cap­ture in a film score.”

In the screen­shots here, see excerpts of the course top­ics, which include units on the films Milk, The Unknown Known, and The Night­mare Before Christ­mas, an exam­ple of “writ­ing specif­i­cal­ly for a character”—a char­ac­ter, Jack Skelling­ton, whose singing voice Elf­man also pro­vid­ed.

For those who feel they’ll nev­er mea­sure up to a career like Dan­ny Elfman’s, he intro­duces all impor­tant units on inse­cu­ri­ty and fail­ure. Per­haps the most impor­tant les­son of all, he says above, with infec­tious enthu­si­asm, is learn­ing that “it’s okay to fail, to feel inse­cure. Doubt­ing your­self, find­ing con­fi­dence and mov­ing for­ward, and then doubt­ing what you’ve just done…. I think this is the life of a com­pos­er. I think it’s the life of an artist.”

Can such things be taught, or can they only be lived? Each teacher and stu­dent of the arts must at some point ask them­selves this ques­tion. Per­haps they only learn the answer when they try, and fail, and try again any­way. Sign up for Elman’s course here.

You can take this class by sign­ing up for a Mas­ter­Class’ All Access Pass. The All Access Pass will give you instant access to this course and 85 oth­ers for a 12-month peri­od.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Take Every Mas­ter­Class Course For Less Than a Cup of Good Cof­fee

Why Mar­vel and Oth­er Hol­ly­wood Films Have Such Bland Music: Every Frame a Paint­ing Explains the Per­ils of the “Temp Score”

All of the Music from Mar­tin Scorsese’s Movies: Lis­ten to a 326-Track, 20-Hour Playlist

Bri­an Eno Reveals His Favorite Film Sound­tracks

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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