The Simpsons: three notes that pay composer Danny Elfman's health insurance

21 January 2015, 17:22 | Updated: 19 April 2016, 16:34

He's written the music for Tim Burton films for 30 years, but - as Danny Elfman exclusively tells Classic FM - it's three notes he sang at the beginning of The Simpsons that made him rich.

"Those are the three notes that kept me in health insurance for 25 years," composer Danny Elfman says of the opening to The Simpsons theme music. Elfman sang those three notes himself with two friends - and he makes more from the royalties from that single performance than he does from having actually composed the tune. Here's a reminder of the five-second melody, as if you needed it:

But one of Hollywood's most in-demand composers of TV and film music says he never expected anyone to hear The Simpsons theme.

"It was such a weird show," he says. "I thought it was going to run two or three times and disappear forever."

Elfman was fronting new wave rock band Oingo Boingo and had composed three off-beat movie scores for maverick director Tim Burton when he was approached in 1989 to write the music that would go on to open more than 500 episodes of The Simpsons over 26 seasons.

As soon as he watched the opening sequence, Elfman was reminded of The Flintstones and told the series creator Matt Groening that he felt inspired to create something 'retro'.

"It was just a total goof," the composer told Classic FM. "I wrote it in one day… in the car on the way home from the meeting, and ran downstairs to my studio, recorded a demo, sent it out.

"That's exactly what plays at the beginning of The Simpsons."

'Marriage' to Tim Burton 

Elfman also spoke candidly about his relationship with Burton, which began in 1985 when the director hired him to write the score for his first feature film, Pee-wee's Big Adventure. The two just clicked, sharing "a skewed sensibility about life in general", said Elfman.

"We grew up with many of the same influences. We were both 'horror-fantasy' kids growing up in Los Angeles, raised on movies." 

Burton's hero was the actor Vincent Price - "the master and the torturer" - while Elfman idolised Peter Lorre - "the tortured soul".

Later Elfman realised "that would actually define much of our relationship".  

The two fell out badly after completing The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993 and did not speak for almost three years. 

"I had a very volatile temper and Tim is particularly strange," Elfman says. 

"It's like being in a marriage. Lots of little things can happen and we had many little things in those years. And then there's something which is the straw that breaks the camel's back and it's usually not that big of a thing. Someone says something the wrong way and suddenly there's just a huge fight.

"Losing Tim for that period of time I had actually felt like I lost a brother." 

The two patched up their differences in 1996 to work on Mars Attacks together, and have collaborated on nine more feature films since then. 

But, Elfman says, he never takes it for granted that he will automatically be scoring the next Tim Burton film.

"I'm surprised every time I get a call again to do another film," he says. "He will call if he's ready to call - and so far he's called 16 times."