The Elfman Sound

One of the awesome things about living in the internet days is that when I want to learn something I can generally find it. I play a little Jazz and when I want tips on how to play like Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson I love how I can google it and find some pretty awesome tips that i might have missed in my own analysis.

So I'm writing an Elfman soundalike and harmonically taking apart some of his stuff to then do a general model and thought of doing the same thing. Didn't find a whole lot out there of harmonic analysis. So thought I'd start a thread of Elfman Analysis. Anything from chord progressions to orchestral techniques or even just choice of instruments.

 I don't have anything huge yet to post myself, but I will. 

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  • This is not something you can get just for free, but if you can afford it it's probably well worth the money for study purposes alone (although you need to either live in the USA or know someone there who can order it for you): ( the bottom one obviously)

  • We did Nightmare Before Christmas on stage last autumn. I listened to the original movie soundtrack a bit. The orchestration was transcribed to a choir and a small band with only keyboards, drums and bass. Learning all parts was very challenging, because of the tonality. Especially the opening song went through all possible keys. Or so it felt.

    I think the normal harmony thing was that it's kind of tonal music with tonic, dominant and subdominant, but it has a lot of sidetracks, where the modulations happen through one or two common tones in consecutive chords. The very common combination is Cm - Abm, used in many horror movies. The common tone is Eb, while you have a minor second step in opposite directions in the two other parts. Or the C - Cb is actually an augmented unison (prime), which makes it even more spooky. The enharmonic swaps usually adds harmonic confusion, which is desired.

    In the opening song there's also Cm - Fm6/C - Em/B - Fm6 - G7 if I recall correctly. And G is the dominant tone in the melody, common in Cm and Em. So when you expect a Cm after the Fm6/C, you get something else, something where the bass drops a half step from C to B, while the melody goes to G, which you do expect. And the phrase ends with the Fm6 - G7, which is very tonal. So the harmony gives promises all the time to be very tonal, but it still makes these free tonal glitches. Compare with Debussy's free tonal music, where it appears that he is avoiding every tonal progression.

  • Thanks! This is really interesting and insightful and exactly what I'm looking for.

  • I haven't analysed the tonality in Nightmare Before Christmas more than that, but I only noticed later that the Cm - Abm relation is kind of the opposite to Cm - Em. Two minor chords on a major 3rd distance. And the tonal centre could be either one. A DVD edition from our stage performance is about to get ready - only for the choir members, though - and I think I'm going to listen to it with a bit more analytical ears.

    It happens that last week my wife bought Corps Bride, by Burton and Elfman, on DVD. I haven't had time to see it yet.

  • You can actually learn a lot about his technique and preferences by watching any movie he has scored and has made a commentary on. He is very transparent, humble and straightforward, even to the point of mentioning how other film composers have "borrowed" themes he's created in the past.

    Generally (in his earlier years), you can find these traits in Elfman scores:
    -Reverse Orchestra (larger wind section than string section)

    -Use of octave jumps in a moving line (think Beetlejuice)

    -Use of gypsy scales and lics in the strings

    -Many, many upbeats!

    -Major to Minor in the same "key" (i.e. B Maj to B min, not B Maj to G# min)

    -The use of a boys choir

    -Bass Clarinet, Contrabass Clarinet and other bass woodwind instruments heavily used

    -Reverse Micky Mousing in Burton Films (making musical impact when nothing is happening in the scene...think Edward Scissorhands vehicles leaving their houses)

    -Color percussion instead of loud hits.

    That's all that comes to mind right away. :)

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