30 Years Later, People Are Still Trying To Figure Out The Time Signature Of The Terminator Theme

the-terminatorOver at Slate,  notes that, 30 years after its release, people are still debating the time signature of the main theme from The Terminator:

As The Terminator celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, the film continues to raise important questions. What are the risks to humanity of ascendant machine intelligence? How does a society correct the catastrophic missteps in its own past? And, most important, what the dickens is that weird time signature in the film’s score?

The other day, upon realizing that 2014 marks three decades since the film was released, I decided to stream the cautionary robot fable to see how it held up. I didn’t make it past the opening titles.

Here’s the synthtastic Terminator Theme from Brad Fiedel’s score to The Terminator:

On his site, Fiedel notes, “Terminator was very difficult because I was using many different synths and sequencers and because I didn’t have MIDI available on many of them I had to sync them by hand. This is why the main theme is in a very odd time signature. The looping of the Prophet 10 was just a little short of a complete measure.”

According to Slate’s Stevenson, the unusual time signature was a happy accident that resulted, in part, from limitations in the electronic music technology available to Fiedel in the 80s:

He first set up a rhythm loop on one of the primitive, early ’80s devices he was using. (In those days, Fiedel was firing up a Prophet-10 and an Oberheim.) He recorded samples of himself whacking a frying pan to create the clanking sounds. Then he played melodic riffs on a synthesizer over the looped beat.

Amid the throes of creation, what he hadn’t quite noticed, or hadn’t bothered to notice, was that his finger had been a split-second off when it pressed the button to establish that rhythm loop. Which meant the loop was in a profoundly herky-jerky time signature.

Fiedel’s and Stevenson’s explanations, while interesting, don’t really account for the continuing debate about the Terminator Theme. Give it a closer listen, though, and you’ll hear the theme presented two different ways:

  • When it is initially introduced (at about 1:06 in the embed above), the Terminator Theme seems to be in 13/4. The quarter note beats are grouped as a 3 + 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 beat cycle.
  • But the same theme is later restated (at about 3:51 in the embed above) over a driving 12/8 beat. In this second arrangement, the eighth notes are grouped as 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 + 2.

Does the fact that the theme is presented with two different rhythmic cycles explain why it’s still puzzling musicians, even after 30 years?

Give it a listen, via the embed above, and let us know what you think!

59 thoughts on “30 Years Later, People Are Still Trying To Figure Out The Time Signature Of The Terminator Theme

  1. Not sure about the time signature, but it holds up pretty well, for a low budget synthesized soundtrack – and is more memorable than a lot of boring orchestral soundtracks of the last three decades.

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    • agreed, but now you have to fight the technology not to be boring, which imo isn’t really as fun and satisfying as trying and failing (or succeeding even 😉 ) to do it “right”.*

      i think the thing that is quite unique (so far) about humans compared to computers is that we can realize that something that isn’t “accurate” or as intended actually sounds better. a computer can’t have intuition, learn by mistakes and only come to understand then underlying principles after the fact. i’m not sure computers could ever have this type of intelligence because if we knew what mistakes sound good we wouldn’t make mistakes!

      * of course it’s entirely personal which programs we feel go too far in removing interesting potential outcomes and which ones are just valuable timesavers.

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    • Let’s hear it for happy accidents. This is exactly why I carp a bit about how playing an acoustic instrument can be so important. Computer-anything is about exacting precision, the X-axis, let’s call it. In music, the Y-axis of the small imperfections has an enormous impact on the perception of the piece. Those tiny inflections are what distinguish us from one another. Its important for you to be ABLE to make those mistakes and with electronics, you have to somewhat impose that environment on purpose, so think pro-actively about how to loosen up. Walk away for 5 minutes if you hit a bad snag. Turn off the click track part of the time. If you have a big pipe organ idea, write it with a marimba first so the melody is on target. Learn when to hit the skillet so you have just the right amount of chaos in the mix. Fiedel didn’t screw up; he brought his inner weirdo to the forefront with inherent skills and a willingness to veer off the road a little. He made the big bucks because he nailed it with style. That soundtrack has doom written all over it, as it was supposed to. It still chills me. Besides, sci-fi movies are one of the best pals a synthesizer ever had.

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    • If you think this is in 7/8, you aren’t counting it out.

      Maybe you’re counting a measure of 6/8 alternating with 7/8? That would add up to the 13-beat cycle that the melody is played with the first time.

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  2. I’ve looked at this under a microscope

    It IS in 13/16. The very first beat is what’s throwing it off. that DUN-dun. Take it away, and it actually loops really nicely.

    The beat distribution is 4+3+2+2+2

    the tempo is 199.0001 (for this particular snippet anyway, of course it will vary +/- a few points but were talking sub-millisecond differences.

    here is the loop http://audiour.com/playlist/aezb3yja

    and here is a visual representation of the audio, which as you can see, fits perfectly in a 13/16 time signature. Red notes are pickups, every beat is represented with a different color. http://i.imgur.com/qF4Ag2V.png

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  3. Yeah those are eighth note subdivisions so it’s 13/8. I don’t hear it ever going to 12/8. Super sick.

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    • The time signature does seem to swing to an implied 12/8 at the end of the beginning credits of T1 & T2, i.e., the “chorus” section. Ex: when the Endo-skull emerges from the fire of T2, that’s a good example of the 12/8 change. The change in T1 is not as smooth due to the sacrifices Fidel explains in the article. Having said that, I’m not convinced of the 13/6, 13/16, or a heavily swung 4/4 explanation. I’m with some of the other ears; there’s seems to be an alternating 7/8 & 6/8..at least to my ears. I think what should be studied is T2’s theme! Because one can guess that Brad Fidel made any corrections he heard or saw fit. Knohwhutimean, Verne?

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  4. Interesting, because I saw Terminator 3 for the first time recently (I know…) and was wondering what had happened -there is a new version of the theme over the closing credits. It’s been rhythmically sanitized…

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  5. Hard to believe that the opening sentence is for real. I know enough musos. Can’t say I know one who even gives a shit about anything related to that redneck idiot.

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  6. (4 3) (4 2)

    This is a 13 beat 7+6 time signature that I use all the time. If you emphasize that it’s a 4 grouping terminated by a 3 then turned around with a 2, it is very intuitive and natural to play. But yeah, obviously if you are expecting something else it sounds random.

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  7. In my opinion, music now a days is lacking humanity/soul or what ever you want to call it. This is a gem, turn off the quantize feature, some times it works in your favor…mouse clickers.

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  8. Definitely sounds like 7/8 to me! There are off-beats within the sequence, but 7/8 is the only count that seems to stay in sync throughout the entirety of the theme. It’s open-ended, cos the individual beats slip in and out of the time signature Especially at the start. From 0:04 to 0:12 the arpeggiation sounds like it’s in 6/8, but this is short lived. When the main theme starts, it’s blatantly 7/8, and if you count in 7’s from that point on, it stays in sync right to the end of the track. From what I can gather, this track wasn’t sequenced per se, so the time change near the start is totally arbitrary. By the time the percussive element comes in, you might think it’s 9/8 (is there even such a time signature? 1-2 1-2 1-2 1-2 1?) But still, 7 is the only count that fits all the way through this piece!
    As Fiedel noted (in the original text) “I didn’t have MIDI available on many of them I had to sync them by hand” so based on that, there’s not going to be a time signature where all the beats land on a specific count. In my opinion, all these people who think it’s 13/8 are just trying to fit 13 beats into the bar, to try and match the notes. Whereas I think the notes are arbitrary, but the sequence falls into a general 7/8 timing

    Hope this makes sense :)

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    • See Junovhs’ comment above. You don’t fit 13 beats into 7/8 unless you’re doing some mental gymnastics.

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      • That’s pretty much what I said. Which is why I think it’s 7/8!
        “s” makes a good point further down, when he points out that the drums and melody are on different counts, and just flow in and out of beat phase.

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  9. That happy accident is easy for manual loop recording, but i think it opened the subjective space for interpreting the auditory sense of the pumping of a machine-like heart, which was dramatically fueling.

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  10. This is in 6. It swings a lot, awkwardly. But the phrases in the melody are straightup 6. The intro is in a 3-based time too. People are complicating this too much. It’s 6.

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  11. I managed to easily count the first version of the theme in 6/4, with the first two notes (du-du-DU) on an upbeat. From where the “drums” enter and on, with the second version of the theme, I managed to count 7/8 (1-2-1-2-1-2-3).

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  12. The whole track rhytmically doesnt sound right and not on the point and therefor cant build up any drive. (But Im used to listen to EDM with driving breakbeats and not wanky stuff)

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  13. the drums and melody are made on different counts and just flow in and out of beat phase. lots of examples of same thing in 70s 80s experimental rhythm composition. not one or the pother, both! would love to see a conductor keep track ha.. just accept it’s two things, for the two elements. people are intentionally deaf to complexity when trying to win a perceived argument

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    • There’s also multiple instruments playing different syncopated rhythms, which is probably affects what people latch onto.

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  14. s is rigth. “the drums and melody are made on different counts and just flow in and out of beat phase” . The drums are so subtle that the polymeter is not so obvious the first time you ear it. Most important…it’s cool :)

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  15. Nice post and discussion, very interesting and yes it is an iconic theme tune – I didn’t have to listen to it to hear it clearly in my mind :)

    Here’s an interesting fact about Loopy on iPad that may lend itself very well to happy accidents. When Loopy is first opened there is no bpm or time signature, leave this unset and open up another app to create some sounds (connect via audiobus). Practice your loop, don’t worry about bpm or time signature or anything like that and just play. When you know what you want to do hit the record button in the audio bus transport panel at the same time as you hit the first sound of your loop. Play the loop and repeat, hitting the record off on the first hit of your loop and Loopy will automatically loop from there working out the bpm for itself. With a bit of practice, or with a happy accident, you can create some quite unusual loops!

    Great fun – but your milage may vary depending on skill level 😉

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    • It’s in 4/4, but the accents might be what throws you off. For the main phrase, group 2 bars together and count it as 3 + 3 + 2, resulting in 8/4 (or 2 4/4 bars). Then the 2nd part count it as a normal 4/4.

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  16. Get an Indian musician, table player maybe. He’ll tell you in a Kolkota minute, or if it doesn’t correspond consistently to any tala (rhythm pattern) he’ll tell you that, too.

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  17. personally part of the “genius” of it ….is that the loop does indeed “glitch”…and this is an audio conveyance of the glitch in computer technology that permeates throughout the whole Terminator movie storyline. The ragged timing give you a sense that the sequencer “machine” is about to break down and crap itself from all of the radiation and fall-out in the future…the machine is “just” working. But not very well.

    you feel that danger…you sense that danger in a subliminal way..because your brain can hear that something is “not quite right” in the feel of the pieces’ timing. Which is of course exactly the disturbed, uneasy but subtle feeling he wants to convey in the music.

    Like I said…Genius.

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  18. All I hear is music….never gave it much thought otherwise, and personally really don’t give a shit about the time signature.

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  19. Brad Fiedel’s work means all Musicians should stop arguing about Time Signatures and Music Theory. Analisys happen after the Creative Process, that is the only lesson there is.

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