Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What is the Terminator theme song's time signature?

As the [Terminator] score kicked in, I immediately recognized it was in a strange time signature. I’m a (very) amateur musician, and my ears are attuned to bizarre beats. This was as jarring as it gets. A disorienting rhythm—in particular the driving, industrial-sounding beat that gets louder and more prominent as the opening theme progresses. It wasn’t in 5/4 or 7/8, both of which I can generally suss out with not much difficulty. I tried to count the beat in my head, and by tapping on my thigh: “DAH-doonk, dah-doonk, dah-doonk, gonk gonk.” But for the life of me I couldn’t make anything fit. My world had been ripped apart, much like Sarah Connor’s when she discovered she was being hunted by an implacable killing machine from the future. ...

[Composer Brad Fiedel] explained that before The Terminator, he’d worked on a score for a TV movie about Hitler’s last days. The producers were concerned that lush string music might lend sympathy to Hitler, so Fiedel conjured up a crashing, metallic ruckus. It was this sound that formed the germ of the later Terminator score.

Fiedel was at heart an improviser. To create the Terminator theme, he first set up a rhythm loop on one of the primitive, early-’80s devices he was using... 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. Being an old machine, there was no autocorrection. Which meant the loop was in a profoundly herky-jerky time signature. Fiedel just went with it. The beat seemed to be falling forward, and he liked its propulsiveness. He recorded the score that way and (not being classically trained) never wrote down any notation. ...

Much like the creators of Skynet, Fiedel was only later forced to consider what he had wrought. He got a call from the legendary film and TV composer Henry Mancini, who was planning to record an album of movie scores with a full orchestra. Fiedel was giddy to learn that Mancini wanted to include the Terminator theme. But then Mancini asked for the “lead sheet”—the notes the bandleader would use so the orchestra musicians could walk in off the street and nail the recording in one take.

Fiedel enlisted a friend named George Kahn, a jazz musician who had a music degree and more formal training, to help set the score to paper. “He called me up and said, ‘Brad, what time signature is this in?’ I said, ‘I dunno, 6/8?’ He said, ‘No, it’s quirkier than that.’ ” ...

And the verdict? “It’s in 13/16. Three plus three plus three plus two plus two.” ...

Brad Fiedel went on to write the theme for Terminator 2: Judgment Day (in the much less jarring time signature of 6/8, because he felt that film had more warmth)...
--Seth Stevenson, Slate, on musical geeking out