Cinema and Media Studies Danny Elfman
Janet K. Halfyard
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0350


Danny Elfman (b. 1953–) is one of the foremost film composers of his generation and one of the most influential of the late 20th century. He has scored well over one hundred films, and he has also scored for television as well as having a parallel career in popular music with the band Oingo Boingo until 1995. Since 2000, he also written a small number of stand-alone works for the concert hall, and, in 2021, he released his first popular music album since the 1990s. Elfman grew up in Los Angeles and after leaving school in 1971, he spent several years traveling in Europe and Africa. He worked with his brother, the director Richard Elfman, in an avant-garde musical theater group in Paris; later, back in Los Angeles, they formed a second troupe, with Elfman as composer. In 1979, the troupe’s musicians (who included Elfman’s long-time film orchestrator Steve Bartek) formed Oingo Boingo, going on to release twelve albums with Elfman as their lead singer and songwriter. It was through Oingo Boingo that he came to the attention of Tim Burton, which led to his scoring Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), the first of the seventeen films he has scored for Burton to date. Much of his characteristic musical style emerged in the early scores for Burton, a style often described as dark and quirky, capable of being both gothic and comic. Batman (1989) and Edward Scissorhands (1990) are perhaps his most iconic and imitated scores, and they quickly established him as a major composer in Hollywood, while the theme music he wrote for the TV animation series The Simpsons (1989) is undoubtedly his best-known work outside film scoring. Elfman nonetheless suffered from a great deal of suspicion in the first decade or so of his film career. His lack of formal musical training gave rise to the belief that he did not genuinely write the music. This is likely the reason why neither Batman nor Edward Scissorhands received Oscar nominations. Despite numerous awards from other organizations, Elfman has never received an Academy Award, and he was not even nominated until 1997. Only a relatively small body of literature treats Elfman’s work so far, mostly articles and book chapters that focus on his work with Burton, and there is a noticeable lack of case studies on any of his scores for other directors. However, among the most useful resources are interviews. Throughout his career he has given many interviews, many of them to popular magazines, in which he has talked both about his musical career and influences and about his working process.

General Overviews

While most of the literature on Elfman focuses on his work with Burton, a small number of publications look more broadly at his career and compositional style. Wright 2006 provides a detailed critical discography. Marks 2020 is a concise summary of Elfman’s career and style. Lerner 2009 is a more developed article focused on Elfman’s style and influences. Currently only one monograph is dedicated to Danny Elfman’s film scoring, Halfyard 2004, which examines Elfman’s score for Batman (1989). Although this volume covers his career only up to around 2002, it is still one of the most in-depth sources on Elfman available.

  • Halfyard, Janet K. Danny Elfman’s Batman: A Film Score Guide. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2004.

    The first two chapters provide a general overview. Chapter 1 examines Elfman’s musical background and influences; the early work with Burton (from 1985 to 1988); and the controversy about his credibility as a composer. Chapter 2 explores Elfman’s scoring technique and style in films for Burton and other directors, looking at issues of genre and style, theme and tone, orchestration, and idiom.

  • Lerner, Neil. “Danny Elfman: ‘Funny Circus Mirrors.’” In Sound and Music in Film and Visual Media: A Critical Overview. Edited by Graeme Harper, 524–530. New York: Continuum, 2009.

    An encyclopedia-style article giving a succinct but thorough overview of Elfman’s biography and musical background, then examining his compositional style in relation to the influence of earlier film composers, in particular Korngold, Steiner, and Herrmann.

  • Marks, Martin. “Elfman, Danny. ” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Dean Root, Philip V. Bohlman, Jonathan Cross, Honey Meconi, and John H. Roberts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

    Originally published in print in the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2d edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), this is a concise account of Elfman’s biography and compositional style. Available by subscription.

  • Wright, H. Steven. “The Film Music of Danny Elfman: A Selective Discography.” Notes 62.4 (2006): 1030–1042.

    DOI: 10.1353/not.2006.0079

    A comprehensive review of all Elfman’s film composition work as issued on recordings—the selectivity stems from not covering any of the Oingo Boingo albums. Useful critical consideration of all the recorded film scores up to Corpse Bride (2005), and therefore one of the relatively rare appraisals of music written for directors other than Burton. The article concludes with the 2005 Carnegie Hall premiere of the concert work, Serenada Schizophrana (2004).

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