Today marks musician and film composer Danny Elfman’s 65th birthday. Elfman began his musical career as the lead singer and songwriter for new wave band Oingo Boingo. But in 1985, Tim Burton asked him to score his first feature, Pee -wee’s Big Adventure. Elfman took on the challenge despite not having any of the formal musical training usually required for orchestral composition. A lack of training was nothing for Elfman’s clear natural gifts, and he has gone on to become an icon of film music. His gift for magical gothic has made Elfman a frequent collaborator of Tim Burton and the secret, spooky ingredient for many a film and television theme.
Check out five of Danny Elfman’s spookiest, most effective film scores below!
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Sleepy Hollow is Tim Burton’s bloody, beautiful love letter to gothic gore and Hammer Horror. And in the score, Elfman really got to flex his horror muscles. While much of Elfman’s work with Burton has been on dark, gothic, but essentially family-friendly films, Sleepy Hollow was straight horror. Horror with plenty of whimsy and style of course — this is Tim Burton.
But Elfman uses ominous, paranoid strings, organs, and plentiful quotations of Dies Irae to create a truly horrifying atmosphere. His signature use of choral vocals is more frightening than usual. The children’s choir is far more unnerving than whimsical, and the use of a male choir lends a sense of impending doom to the proceedings.
Sleepy Hollow boasts one of the best cold opens in all of horror, at least in my opinion. It’s a sequence entirely without dialogue, setting up key clues and plot points as well as suspense and the first kill of the film. It does so with aplomb, thanks in large part to Elfman’s inspired opening music. He builds unease with quiet strings, foreboding with organs, eeriness and mystery with soprano vocals, and finally, a burst of death and terror with deep brass, organs and male vocals. It’s an incredible sequence and some of Elfman’s best work.
Along with the cold open “Introduction”, other highlights of the spectacular score is the atmospheric “Main Titles”, the eerie and melancholy “Young Ichabod,” and the dreamlike, terrifying “Into the Woods/The Witch.”
Beetlejuice was Elfman’s 2nd collaboration with Tim Burton. The quirky ghost comedy was the perfect opportunity for the composer to flex his comedic, playful side. The score is less lush or classical than his later work, with clever use of synthesizers and lots of brass. The music frequently has the sound of a gothic circus, fitting for the story of a conman for the dead. A single fiddle usually heralds the arrival of the title character. It evokes the opening fiddle tri-tone of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre, a fiddle played by death to invite skeletons to rise from their graves and dance on Halloween.
The opening is a perfect showcase of Elfman’s quirky musical talents. Eerie 80’s synths lead into an ominous sample of Harry Belafonte, followed by a wonderfully manic brass piece. It’s a combo that shouldn’t work, but in Elfman’s hands, it does.
Corpse Bride (2005)
Corpse Bride is a lovely, haunting stop-motion fairy tale from Tim Burton and Mike Johnson. And of course, where Burton is you can usually find the work of Danny Elfman. (There’s a reason every score on this list is a Burton production.)
For Burton’s fable of Victorian class structure, love, and death, Elfman composed a traditional score and several expository musical numbers. The songs themselves are fewer than the almost sung-through Nightmare Before Christmas. They are less memorable than that iconic musical, but the orchestral score to Corpse Bride is simply stunning.
The gray, oppressive Victorian setting is filled with harpsichord and stern piano melodies. The world of the dead is jazzy and bright. And the innocent love of the young protagonists and the dead Corpse Bride is represented by a sweeping, melancholy theme. The film features several achingly beautiful piano pieces, especially “Victor’s Piano Solo,” and “The Piano Duet.” The orchestral pieces are gorgeous and will absolutely melt you, especially “Moon Dance” and “The Finale.”
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
The Nightmare Before Christmas was to future goths what The Little Mermaid was to most early 90’s kids. If you ever owned black lipstick, you probably lived by this classic and its soundtrack at some point in your life. And there’s a good reason. Along with the glorious stop-motion animation from Henry Selick, Danny Elfman’s songs are amazing!
The film has very little dialogue and is almost entirely sung. No Halloween party playlist would be complete without the energetic, Elizabethan style opening of “This Is Halloween.” It sums up the spirit of the holiday like no other. Danny Elfman himself provides the distinctive speak-singing of Jack Skellington, and it’s a fantastic vocal performance.
The film is a tour de force of iconic songs, including the manic “What’s This?” the hilariously dark “Kidnap The Sandy Claws,” the Dies Irae flavored “Making Christmas,” the jazzy “Oogie Boogie’s Song,” and the lovely waltz of “Sally’s Song.”
It’s difficult to name an animated musical as unconventional and utterly successful as The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the musical brilliance of Danny Elfman is why.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Tim Burton’s beautiful suburban fairy tale was the perfect film for Elfman to showcase his ability to conjure wonder and sadness through music. Elfman goes all in with the whimsy, featuring a children’s choir throughout most of the score. The Edward Scissorhands score conjures a dreamlike, deeply melancholy mood perfectly fitting the equally strange, wondrous, and tragic story.
The score, like the film, is not without humor or satire. The music for the sequences in the pastel, retro suburbia of the film is delightful, especially the tongue in cheek tango of “Edwardo the Barber.”
The main theme is a gentle, bittersweet waltz in strings, harp, music box, and children’s choir. It’s almost impossible to watch Edward Scissorhands without getting misty-eyed, and the music is a big part of this. Danny Elfman is a master of conjuring musical magic and emotion, and his score for Edward Scissorhands is one of his greatest works.
Highlights include “Storytime,” “Castle on the Hill,” “Ballet De Suburbia,” “Ice Dance,” and “The Grand Finale.”
Good film music is the secret to how movies work on our emotions. It’s no wonder why Tim Burton chooses to work with Danny Elfman over and over again. As a composer, Elfman adds an essential combination of wonder, darkness, and emotion to everything he does. His musical humor is brilliant as well. In celebration of Elfman’s birthday, why not listen to one of your favorite scores of his? Or even better, put on your favorite of his film’s and experience how the music works so seamlessly, and essentially, to make the movie work as well as it does.