Ep. 44 – Danny Elfman’s “The Simpsons” Main Theme (1989) + Adam Driver in White Noise (2022)

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In this episode, Carl King examines Danny Elfman’s “The Simpsons Main Theme” (1989) + Adam Driver in White Noise (2022).  

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Carl King Podcast 044




Danny Elfman / The Simpsons 1989

Danny Elfman Batman “Work Tape Demo”

Esquivel / Lazy Bones

Esquivel / Music Makers

Erin Hobson / Popular Songs In The Lydian Mode

Danny Elfman / Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure


I’m Carl King, and this is The Carl King Podcast, where EVERY WEEK, we learn about music, filmmaking, and the other creative arts. To support this podcast, head over to Patreon.com/carlking, and join for just $1 or $5 per month. Or send a tip through PayPal or Venmo to username CarlKingdom. Special thank you to my Illusionist $51 level patrons, both Hank Howard III and Chewbode. Chooch-dobe. 

Quick shout-out to my music endorsements: Vienna Symphonic Library, Fractal Audio, Ernie Ball Strings, Toontrack, and Millennia Media.

Now let’s get this episode Beginned! 


This week’s film review is White Noise. From Netflix. 

My wife asked me if I wanted to watch an Adam Driver film on New Year’s Eve. Well, I discovered that it was screenwrited and directored by Noah Baumbach. I couldn’t immediately place his name but recalled that he is a noteworthy filmmaker. So I said yes, let’s watch that one. 

I was also not aware this film was based on an acclaimed novel from 1985. Written by Don Delillo. And the film’s story takes place in 1984. Although it felt a bit more retro than that, in my own subjective opinion. 

My first observation: this is the first NEW movie to ever look legitimately 70s / 80s film OLD. I would have believed those college shots with the long lenses were from the 70s. But that look mysteriously goes away. It returns to a clean digital look? It made me wonder, were some scenes shot analog and some digital? 

7 minutes in, during that family scene, I wondered: is this really good or really BAD? I was thinking, man, what’s with the stiff dialogue? If this weren’t a Noah Baumbach film I would have shut it off. Kind of like listening to Mr. Bungle’s Disco Volante for the first time. 

That scene is my idea of hell, being in a kitchen with 5 people all talking about different things at the same time. No continuity, no conversation. What is HAPPENING here? What am I WATCHING? 

Adam Driver is the father of an overly-intellectual family obsessed with encyclopedia-type trivia. Throughout the film, the adults speak in heavy philosophical abstractions, and the kids are constantly asking random scientific questions out of context. It reminded me a bit of House of Yes, but times 100. 

Years ago, before I made Oracle of Outer Space, I had the intention to shoot a drama TV show. I wanted to combine beautiful dramatic cinematography like that show Revenge — but with dialogue that made zero sense. 

And this film was very much like that. There were a lot of scenes, where, if you simply turned off the sound and subtitles, it would have a heavy dramatic feel. But the dialogue is somewhere between awkward and totally surreal. The characters do NOT talk anywhere near how real people talk. There’s a clunky formality, full of observations on unimportant details. 

Adam Driver’s character works at a Post-Modern institution called “College On The Hill” where he and the other professors behave like cult leaders or televangelists. Instead of teaching, they give performance art lectures in unexpected courses like Car Crashes, Elvis Presley, and Hitler Studies. 

At school, Adam Driver even wears a sort of religious gown or cloak, which he flips around dramatically… and blue-tinted 70s glasses that reminded me of cult leader Jim Jones. 

Part of the major ACTION plot of the movie is a radiation cloud. Or “Toxic Airborne Event.” There’s panic. A mass evacuation. And there’s even a Naked Gun or Airplane moment with all the trash cans at the ends of the driveways. 

In any other film this DISASTER would be the central premise. And the whole story would be based around that. But by Act Three, the cloud simply goes away. Everything SORT OF returns to normal. 

This stretches the structure, and the rhythm of the story. Screenplays aren’t expected to work that way. How often do you see a major physical threat / emergency plot-point come and go like that, resolving before Act Three? Not often. I can’t think of another film that does it. 

From then on, the plot becomes centered on an experimental medication that Adam Driver’s wife, played by Greta Gerwig, has been taking. It had been woven into the previous acts, but now it comes to the foreground. 

My favorite acting moment of all, was when Greta Gerwig confesses an indiscretion. Adam Driver imagines the grubby little motel room with the TV mounted near the ceiling. And he wanders around their bedroom, imagining the scene, even looking around for that ceiling-mounted television. 

Now, in acting, there’s a concept called “object work” or “space work.” And in that scene, the actors perform many minor physical actions as they deliver their lines. Changing rooms, opening windows, going through doors, standing up, sitting down, going in and out of the bathroom, etc. 

Although some of them made sense — the wife HAD just come home and was settling herself, kind of getting ready for bed? They weren’t necessary. But without those actions, the 14-minute scene would feel too static. Had the scene only been 2-3 minutes, it wouldn’t need all of that activity. 

100% by coincidence, White Noise was scored by Danny Elfman, who I’m going to talk about in the next segment. But I was so captivated by the surrealism of this film, I barely noticed the music. A job well done? 

Anyway, I loved it. On the last possible day, White Noise made it into my Top 5 films of 2022. At #5. And I gave it 5/5 stars and a little heart, on Letterboxd. 

Now let’s move on to our Analytical Music Theory Analysis of the week. 


This week, our music theory analysis is: The Simpsons Main Theme by Danny Elfman. Requested by my Patreon member MODIAK. 

Danny Elfman / The Simpsons 1989

Little bit of Historical Perspective…This one is from the year 1989, which was a big year for Mr. Elfman, since it was also the year of Tim Burton’s BATMAN. And it’s surprising to note that he had only been in the film scoring business for FOUR YEARS at this point. That’s right: his first real film score, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure happened in 1985. 

About the production and sound-quality…As far as I can tell, his orchestrator and bandmate Steve Bartek also officially got started at that time — even though he held a degree in music composition from UCLA since 1974. At least, according to The Internet. But it’s pretty impressive that even though they had a ton of experience with rock music, by the time they did The Simpsons and Batman, they had really only worked with real film orchestras for 4 years. 

Maybe someday the world will hear that original Simpsons theme demo, which Elfman supposedly recorded, immediately after his meeting with Matt Groening. I did a quick search and didn’t see it anywhere. 

But there IS actually a collection called Danny Elfman and Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box, and it contains a “work tape” of the Batman Theme from this same time period. And it sounds pretty much like an old Casio Keyboard. So I assume the original Simpsons theme, from that same year, was of that synthesizer quality, too. I’ll put a link to the Batman demo in the show notes. 

Danny Elfman Batman “Work Tape Demo”

That said, the orchestration on this Simpsons theme IS a bit murky. But I think that was an intentional retro choice. It’s a smaller studio sound, and reminds me of Esquivel, with its zany bongos and percussion. And of course it has that cartoony Carl Stalling thing going on as well. If you’re not familiar with Esquivel, I will put a link to some of his music in the show notes. 

Esquivel / Lazy Bones

Esquivel / Music Makers

Now let’s talk some music theory…This piece is in the key of… C Lydian… DOMINANT. Which sounds like this. It’s also called The Acoustic Scale. Why? We don’t know yet. 

Now why do we use words for scales? Why learn all this music theory? Because music theory is the shared language of music. It’s how we TALK about it. 

It’s like how veterinarians use the words Cat or Bird. One simple word like that tells them about two totally different animals. If I call the vet and say, “I’m bringing you a CAT” that tells them a LOT of information. With just that one word. They know what to prepare for. 

So, to an educated musician, the words “C Lydian Dominant” tells them many specific things about the music. I don’t know why so many people, especially musicians, are afraid to learn these things. 

So here’s what Lydian Dominant is. Here’s the C major scale we all know. C – D – E – F – G – A – B. And C again at the top.

We all know that sound. It’s all the white keys on the piano.

Now when someone says “Lydian” or “Lydian Mode” — we change one of the notes of that major scale. We take the 4th note of it, which is C D E F! And we raise it by one half-step. To F#. To a black key. And that’s it. So that C Lydian Mode sounds like this. C – D – E – F# – G – A – B – C. So instead of the F natural, it’s F#. 

One of the the common traits of Lydian is… it’s got that two major chords a whole step apart thing going on, like C Major to D Major. Like this. Because in a plain old major key, those chords would be C major and D minor. It’s especially Lydian sounding if you keep that C underneath both chords. 

You can check out the first two chords of Inca Roads by Frank Zappa. It’s those two exact chords. C major and D major. Uplifting and otherworldly, appropriate for a song about aliens. 

You’ll also hear it all over the music of Steve Vai, John Williams, Frank Zappa, Rush, Devin Townsend, and of course my own music. 

Guitarist Erin Hobson has a great YouTube video demonstrating many popular songs that use the Lydian mode, and I will put a link to it in the show notes. 

Erin Hobson / Popular Songs In The Lydian Mode

But Danny Elfman used yet another twist on this mode. He uses C Lydian DOMINANT. Now what does that mean? In this case, it means you also change the 7th note, or the B. You drop it by a half step, to Bb. So the scale would now sound like this. C – D – E – F# – G -A – Bb – C. 

That’s 1 – 2 – 3 – #4 – 5 – 6 – b7 – 8. So all Lydian Dominant means… is a major scale, with a raised 4th and a lowered 7th.  And the main melody of this Simpsons theme uses those 7 notes. 

By the way, Danny Elfman also used this Lydian Dominant scale in the opening of his Pee-Wees Big Sdventutre score. And that one is in F Lydian Dominant. There’s a little arpeggio going up and down using the notes F – A – B – C – Eb. 

Danny Elfman / Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure

And to all the fans of Trey Spruance and Faith No More, Trey actually used the E Lydian Dominant scale in the guitar solo for the song Last To Know on King For A Day, Fool For A Lifetime. Oddly enough, it’s superimposed on a blues riff, with a minor third. Which so far, scholars are unable to explain. 

Now A special thing about both Lydian AND Lydian Dominant is that the #4, or F# in the key of C, creates a Tritone over the root. Which can sound very evil and dark, depending on the context. It’s funny how that same interval can trick our ear, because it can either sound uplifting… or satanic. 

Now here’s another cool thing about Lydian Dominant. In that mode, you pretty much have two major chords, or at least two major third intervals, a Tritone apart. Like this. 

This ALMOST creates what is known as a Petrushcka chord, from the popular ballet by Stravinsky. Which is two full major chords a tritone apart like this. (Play arpeggios starting at C and F# ending on C). I use this exact bi-tonal sound regularly in my music. 

Playing those two piano-style triads at the same time is hard to do on a guitar, so for the heck of it, I’m going to tune my D string down a half step to C# and my B string up to C. 

So now on the bottom 3 strings I have an F# major and on the top 3 I have a C major. 

OK, back to normal tuning. TECHNICALLY, in Lydian Dominant, the full triad built on the #4 would actually be a DIMINISHED. F# – A – C. Using the scale degrees #4 – 6 – 1. So if you alternate between those two, it would sound like this. C major, F# diminished. Or arpeggiated. Which would be weird because they have a common tone of C in them. 

But you could also build an inverted augmented-sounding triad using the scale degrees #4 b7 9. Or F# Bb D. But the scale degrees and enharmonic names get a little confusing there. And that would sound like this. So you could go from C major to F# augmented. Or arpeggiated. Because these scale degrees are all close enough together. 

Now let’s get even more abstract in music theory land. Here’s what I think, what makes both of these modes — or scales — both Lydian, and Lydian Dominant special. They move the Major scale sound CLOSER to a Whole-Tone scale sound. 

Lydian has 3 whole steps in a row C – D – E – F#, and Lydian Dominant has 4 in a row, if you start on the 7th and go up from there. Bb – C – D – E – F#. Which is one note short of a whole tone scale, it’s only missing an Ab. So I think ultimately, we’re all just trying to play whole tone music. Maybe we should get it over with. 

Now what is a whole tone scale? It is a 6 note scale made up entirely of whole steps. Like this. C – D – E – F# – Gb – Bb – C. 

Fun this about this — there’s only TWO whole tone scales. So, you can play a C whole tone. And then move it all up a half step to a C# whole tone. But if you go up another half step, to D whole tone, it’s all the same enharmonic notes as C whole tone. You can experiment with that yourself to understand why. 

Now in my opinion, the Whole Tone scale has ALL of the best scale degrees. 1 – 2 – 3 – #4 – b6 – and b7, although that b7 is a tricky one because it can sound Bluesy if you’re not careful. And we all know blues music cannot exist in outer space. 

And because of all these intervals in this Whole Tone scale, you can put a major third on top of every note. Like this. Now while you’re at it, you COULD throw in a perfect 5th on top of each one. And no one would sue you. Because if you don’t, you’ll just end up with all Augmented chords. 

And speaking of whole tone, I’m pretty sure Danny Elfman uses a bunch of 16th-note whole-tone runs in the woodwinds and strings. Like this. I’ll leave the at-tempo shredding to those whose fingers are in better shape. 

Overall, this is a fun musical cue and it probably made Danny Elfman an unbelievable amount of money — assuming he’s paid every single time an episode of the Simpsons plays on TV. 

I do have more to say about this piece of music, specifically the phrasing of the melody, but I’ll save it for a Part Two someday. 

And thank you to Modiak again for requesting this one. Listeners, if there’s a piece of music you want me to talk about on this show, send me a request. Although priority will be given to my Patreon members. 


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