The Danny Elfman MasterClass: Is It Worth The Money?
If you’re a regular here, you know I’m a big fan of MasterClass. So far I’ve done Christina Aguilera, Reba McEntire and Deadmau5. I wanted to try a different genre this time, and I love The Simpsons, so Danny Elfman seemed like a decent choice. This is the first of a four-part series, so please subscribe to stay updated on the course!
Please note: MasterClass is an affiliate, which means if you take the course through my links, I’ll make a small percentage of the course fee. It doesn’t cost you extra and the amount I make allows me to keep this blog going, so I really appreciate your support! Regardless of my affiliate status, I will always give you my honest and unbiased opinions.
My Music MasterClass: Danny Elfman Edition
Even if you’ve never heard of Danny Elfman by name, I guarantee you’ve heard his work. He is the composer for the Simpsons, many of Tim Burton’s movies, and too many others to name. MasterClass only uses the best of the best, so there’s no better place to learn composing!
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I always make a video about where I am in the class, so here is that update if you want to see:
The MasterClass Workbook
The first thing I always do is download the workbook to get an overview of the course. Right away, Danny Elfman’s workbook is different from the rest. Someone put a lot of time into the design and made it look nice. The others seemed to be a MasterClass template or something, but it seems someone went the extra mile on this one! I don’t know if I can show you, but it just has really nice graphics and looks fancy. The font and graphics gives it kind of a Tim Burton vibe.
Meeting Danny Elfman
We start the course by touring his working space and just meeting him in general. He’s got a lot of eccentric/weird/creepy stuff, from scary looking dolls to fake body parts. Dude’s kinda weird, but I like it. It makes perfect sense why he would work with Tim Burton.
He originally wanted to be a “radiation biologist,” but got into music instead. His highschool friends got him into composing through their love of Russian composers. Hanging out with weirdos is always a good idea, I highly recommend it.
He traveled through Africa with a violin, playing with random musicians along the way. He said something that made me laugh out loud:
As a redhead, I can totally relate.
How to Start Composing Music for Film
I’ve always been curious about how this works. Does a composer just get a film with no sound and they fill it in?
It turns out, it’s a very involved process. Elfman meets with the director and they watch the movie together, taking detailed notes. They show samples of his notes and they’re highly technical.
Directors will sometimes use “temp music” to hold in place for the composer. Elfman kind of trashes other composers who phone it in, basically copying the temp music without adding anything new. “It’s bullshit, it’s not doing your job,” he says. I kind of agree. It’s not really composing if you’re copying something already made. I wish he named names, but I’m sure he can’t.
He talks about working with different budgets, which I can relate to as a session musician. He advises composers to not use synthetic instruments in place of real orchestras. “That’s crap,” he says, “that’s always been crap, and it’s still crap.” I sort of agree with this, especially for horns. Fake horns sound like garbage. However, synth strings can be cool and not everyone has access to a whole orchestra. I certainly will just use synthetic instruments for this class because I’m a broke ass musician.
Dude can talk a LOOOOOTTT about film scoring. You can tell he’s very passionate about it. I’m passionate about music, of course, but I found myself kind of spacing out at certain points. You can speed up the videos by 1.5 or 2x, which is nice sometimes.
Creating Melodies in Film Scores
“Finding a melody…is actually one of the hardest things there is,” says Elfman, as we go to a shot of The Simpsons and I freak out (I love that show so much). “Every songwriter knows, the simplest tunes don’t necessarily come simply.”
The Simpsons theme song is a rarity in that it actually did come easily to Elfman. He started composing it as he sat with Matt Groening and watched the intro. He says “It was done in my car before I got home.”
I love this story, because I love The Simpsons so much.
Live Listening Session
“A Simple Plan,” a film and score I’ve never heard of before, is broken down and we analyze it. One very cool thing he mentions is that you can take a simple melody and give it different emotions just by changing the instruments or effects. I think most musicians *know* this, but hearing it articulated was cool and helpful.
Imagine “Mary Had a Little Lamb” played hauntingly by an off-key violin. Not a lullaby anymore, right? Or imagine it played by a saxophone and stand-up bass. Same melody, totally different feelings. I think that’s really cool and super important for film scoring.
We listen to “A Simple Plan” and it’s absolutely terrifying. The combination of off-key instruments and the pauses between them literally makes my hair stand on end.
IS THIS NOT TERRIFYING?! Danny Elfman is a terrifying, eccentric genius and so far, I’m here for it.
Recap of the MasterClass So Far
Almost every MasterClass I’ve taken thus far has assumed that the student has some prior knowledge of the topic before going into it. I’m seeing that here and I’m a little concerned because, well, I don’t know the first thing about film scoring. Like literally, what is step one?
I do enjoy Danny Elfman so far. He’s weird and cool and funny. I guess it’s up to me to figure out the first steps, then I can return better prepared.
Time for my shameless affiliate plugs!
MasterClass is now offering exclusively the All-Access Pass, which means you get access to any of the classes. This makes way more sense to me and I’ve definitely gotten a ton of use out of the All-Access Pass.
Not sure what other classes there are? Here is the home page:
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