How to write a film score like Danny Elfman

According to, while making Nightmare Before Christmas, “Composer and lyricist Danny Elfman didn’t have a script to write the songs from. He asked Tim Burton to describe a scene and then Elfman would compose the song.” From a slightly biased composer’s perspective, this is an excellent example of how a film should be made.

anigif_enhanced-buzz-29802-1382981015-41Often, filmmakers don’t consider music or sound until the very end of the project. At which point, there is very little budget left, and all of the creative decisions have been made. The music must conform to the visuals; not a collaborative model at all. In my opinion, the music should influence the film and vice versa.

I learned this lesson from personal experience. As a graduate teaching assistant, I created an electronic music composition inspired by Federico García Lorca’s Poems of the Deep Song. It featured electronically manipulated classical guitar samples and a film by a very talented artist. My mistake was to write the music first, then expect the artist to make her film conform to my vision of the music and poetry. There are moments which work perfectly, but overall it would have been better if I had collaborated more closely with the artist from the beginning. In my case, I put the music first and the film second.

On the other hand, I worked on music and sound design for Interactive Science in 3d, an educational video game group at UGA funded by the National Institute of Health. It was a great collaborative experience. The game designers presented me and my colleague with an in-progress game. We composed a short piece for the opening scene and sent it back to them for approval. They liked it so much, they redesigned the beginning of the game to fit seamlessly with our music. The score inspired the design and vice versa. It was very effective and a lot of fun to see the final results. Check out the video below.

In my opinion, Nightmare Before Christmas is so successful because of the collaborative arrangement between Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. The music inspired the film’s visual design making it one of the greatest Halloween films of all time.

Can you name other films that follow this collaborative model?

How to Develop a Melody Using Sequencing

Sequencing is another time-honored tool that most composers use on a regular basis. Sequencing is the immediate repetition of a motive at a higher or lower pitch level. The motive can be almost any length the composer desires as long as it is not a complete repetition of the entire phrase. Often the motive is quite short, just a few beats or a single measure.

I particularly like to use ascending sequences. They create a sense of growing intensity and anticipation, as if something important is about to happen. They work well as transitions to new sections or as a build up to an important climactic moment.

There are a number of different types of sequences. Two of the most used sequences are exact and tonal. Example No 1 is an original melody which I used in my first blog post to demonstrate inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion. Example No. 2 is the same melody subjected to exact sequencing. All of the intervals in each sequence are exactly the same as the original melody. Accidentals have to be added to maintain the intervallic relationship among the notes. This is sometimes referred to as a modulating sequence because, with the addition of so many accidentals in measure 4, the phrase has essentially modulated to the key of C# major.

Example No. 1


Example No. 2

sequencing exact

Example No. 3 is the same melody subjected to tonally adjusted sequencing. None of the sequences have accidentals; therefore, the phrase remains in the key of F# minor.

Examples No. 3

tonally adjusted sequencing

Three and out is the general rule for sequencing. In other words, whatever you decide to sequence should only be sequenced three times; anything longer feels predictable and tedious.

In addition, it is advisable to vary the sequences. Change some of the notes or invert one of the sequences to keep the listener off balance. Most people are sophisticated enough to understand that a sequence is in progress and can predict what it will sound like as it unfolds. If one of the sequences, usually the third, is a little different, it will keep the audience off balance and engaged. If they can predict exactly what you are going to do next, you have lost them. Keep them engaged with unpredictable twists and turns. Example No. 4 demonstrates this concept. The last sequence is inverted; all of the intervals are upside down.

I encourage you to play through these examples, then apply sequencing to one of your own melodies and see what happens. Enjoy!

Example No. 4

exact with inversion

Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, How to Write a Hit Song

According to Billboard Magazine, Blurred Lines “has sold 5.8 million downloads in its 26 weeks of release, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It continues its radio dominance with a 10th week atop R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay.” What makes this song popular with everyone from 80-year-old grandmothers to 18-year-old hipsters is how these controversial words are set musically. There are plenty of songs that explore controversial themes, but this particular song has obviously captured a large audience. There must be something about the music that makes it popular.

The instrumentation is very sparse consisting of only bass and percussion, see Example No. 1. The percussion section is just a cowbell, clap, and high hat. There is also a mark tree (chime tree) at the beginning which adds a little color.

The bass part establishes a repetitive rhythmic pattern on scale degrees one and five in the key of G major. There is a descending turnaround in measure 8 that walks down the G major scale from note D to G. This firmly establishes the song in the key of G major, see Example No. 1. The entire chord progression is simply four measures on a G major chord and four measures on a D major chord with a turnaround in measure 8.

Example No. 1

Blurred Lines Example 1aBlurred Lines Example 1b

The most interesting aspect of the accompaniment is its driving rhythmic pattern which is highly syncopated and full of rhythmic interest. For instance, the cowbell starts on the upbeat of count one with an interesting sixteenth-note pattern that ends on the upbeat of count four. This rhythmic motive starts and ends on an upbeat giving the song an irresistible rhythm. The clap occurs on counts two and four creating a straight up, rock and roll back beat which never fails to give any song a bouncing, upbeat rhythmic intensity. The high hat is used sparingly on the upbeat of count four in every other measure.  This creates a nice rhythmic lift in measures 2, 4, 6, and 8.

Basically, the instrumental accompany is as simple as it gets, only two chords, no guitar, no keyboard, just bass. The accompaniment provides a bare bones harmonic structure and a driving rhythmic pattern that propels the song forward allowing the vocals to stand out.

This song relies almost exclusively on its vocal setting. One of the ear marks of a good setting is how closely the rhythm follows the natural rhythm of the words when spoken. For instance, “You’re a good girl, I know you want it,” sounds identical to the way one would naturally say it. Say it a few times then sing the song as comparison. Sounds the same right?

Also, the melodic contour and harmony accentuates important words and phrases throughout. For instance, harmony is only used on “You’re a good girl,” and “I hate these blurred lines.” In the chorus, these words are harmonized in thirds on both the five and one chords respectively. In both cases, the lower voice starts a half step below the third (Bb) and the seventh (F natural) in the G major scale. Then it slides up to the B natural and F#. The initial lowered third and lower seventh create extra harmonic tension making these words really stand out in the song. Most people who hear this song for the first time will remember those particular lines. Who can forget “you’re a good girl, I know you want it.” That is the core of this song.

What’s the lesson for aspiring musicians and song writers in this song? Less is more. The sparse instrumental accompaniment provides a driving rhythmic pattern which allows the words to stand out from the accompaniment. There are no fancy guitar solos or instrumental breaks to distract the listener, and harmony is used sparingly only on the most important words. So if you want a hit song, create a catchy hook and keep it simple baby. See you on the charts!