3/4? 7/16? 12/8? A Slate Investigation Into the Time Signature of The Terminator’s Score.

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Feb. 26 2014 12:21 PM

What Is the Time Signature of the Ominous Electronic Score of The Terminator?

A Slate investigation.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator.
The Terminator, a merciless cyborg, cares not for time signatures.

Still courtesy Hemdale Film/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

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.

As the 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.

First, a quick primer on time signatures for the uninitiated. Most straight-ahead rock songs are written in 4/4 time. You can count “1-and-2-and-3-and-4” with the bass drum thumping on the 1 and 3 and the snare drum cracking on the 2 and 4. Listen here as Levon Helm rocks it steady on the Band’s “The Weight. ”

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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Similarly, when you hear a waltz you can usually count off “1-2-3, 1-2-3” without much trouble. Here’s an example of Elliott Smith weaving his way through 3/4 time.

These are both easily digestible time signatures that are pleasing to our sense of order. Sometimes, however, a song will stray from the standard beats and get a bit weird. Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” is the classic example of a song in 5/4 time. Listen to the repeating lick on the piano (“do-DA, do-DA, doo-DAH”) and steadily count out “1-2-3-4-5” with the 1 falling on the first “do,” the 3 near the second “DA,” and the 4-5 syncing with the “doo-DAH.” Another mainstream piece in an outré time: Peter Gabriel’s sprightly “Solsbury Hill,” which is in 7/4. You can hear the bass drum thump seven times with each line of the verse.

OK, back to The Terminator. Come with me if you want to live ... in a world where we definitively know the time signature of the film’s score. I paused the movie and took to the Internet, confident the source of all information would give me closure, letting me exhale and enjoy some unfettered cyborg ultraviolence.

No such luck. I quickly found a thread on a message board for Lansing audio products in which my question had been posed, but the initial responses were all wrong or unhelpful. Someone offered a link to tablature in 3/4 time, which is incorrect. Someone else suggested it was in 6/8, when it clearly isn’t. My frustration mounted along with the original poster’s as he checked back in, still waiting for an answer. Soon I found another thread on a different message board where that same person had repeated his inquiry—and had again received unsatisfying results. I noticed that at the bottom of one of these threads a respondent had offered a plausible theory that the song was in 13/16. But the original poster still wondered: Where is the sheet music, or some other official source, so we can settle this once and for all?

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