Study Guide

The Terminator Music (Score)

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Music (Score)

Brad Fiedel

You never know when opportunity will come knocking, or what shape it will take when it finally shows up at your door. Could be a job offer, could be a muscular killer cyborg with a really big gun. For Brad Fiedel, it just happened to be both.

Before 1984, Fiedel worked mainly as a composer on television gigs. One of his IMDB credits includes "ABC After School Specials." In fact, he provided the musical accompaniment to the oft-forgotten classic My Mother Was Never a Kid (source).


Fiedel's big break came when James Cameron asked him to compose the score for The Terminator. At the time, Fiedel didn't recognize the opportunity for what it was: he wasn't too excited about tackling a low-budget action movie (source). But in tackling this mere action movie, he gave us one of the most recognizable scores of the 1980s.

I Compose the Body Electric

Fiedel composed The Terminator's score in his garage. He used his own gear, including a Prophet 10, an Oberheim, a drum machine, and a sequencer. While primitive by today's standards, these instruments were considered "cutting-edge for the period" (source). The result was a very fitting synth soundtrack that homed in on mechanical sounds while reserving its more natural instrumentation for the softer, more human moments.

Let's start with everyone's favorite: "The Main Theme." The theme opens with what Fiedel calls "the idea of the mechanical man, in a sense, and his heartbeat." It sets the tone for the film's story and themes (source), and it also introduces many of the musical elements that Fiedel will return to as the story progresses.

We can hear the "mechanical heartbeat" in the thumping percussion that opens the piece, and we can also hear the underlying electronic hum, which pulsates like a heart monitor. Then the melody picks up, and the percussion fades noticeably into the background. Although the melody is synthetic, it's in a lighter mode that is uplifting and hopeful.

As the composition plays out, it becomes a battle between the percussion and the melody. At one point, the percussion introduces metallic clangs that sound like something you'd hear on a factory floor, metal beating on metal. It's like the percussion is assaulting the melody, violently trying to pound it into submission. The result is a theme that prepares you for the story ahead, one in which humans (melody) and machines (percussion) battle each other to determine a victor.

Oh, and for you music theorists out there, the Main Theme's time signature is 13/16, which is a strange one, to say the least. The reason for this tonal oddity is that Fiedel was a split-second off when creating the rhythm loop, and his machines lacked auto-correction. He also didn't use notation in his process. This happy accident added an eerie, unfamiliar quality to the composition, perfect for a theme dedicated to the likes of the Terminator (source).

Let's also consider "Police Station & Escape from the Police Station," which plays during the Terminator's assault on the precinct. You'll notice a lot of the elements from the "Main Theme" return here. It starts with that heartbeat percussion, low and ominous, and it picks up another synth melody.

This second melody is far less uplifting and far more menacing than the other one. The percussion of clanging metal never really goes away, either, always remaining upfront in the composition. Fiedel adds some shrill strings this time to put us more on edge. The result reminds us of the struggle introduced in the "Main Theme," but here the machines are winning, as evidenced by the distorted melody and the ever-present percussion. Although Sarah and Reese escape the police station, this music lets the audience know that they are at their lowest point at this moment.

And now for something complete different: "Conversation by the Window & Love Scene." In this scene, Reese and Sarah admit their love for each other. The Terminator is nowhere to be found, and our heroes have a small moment of rest.

To introduce the characters' emotionally open state, Fiedel opens the composition with soft piano keys. We recognize the melody returning from the beginning, but it sounds different with the organic-sounding instruments. The synth sounds don't pick up until Sarah and Reese begin, um, enjoying each other's company. At this point, we can fully recognize the melody from the "Main Theme," but at no point do the mechanical heartbeat or metallic clangs return.

As we'll later learn, this is the night John Connor is conceived, so the lack of percussion makes sense. In a way, this is the humans' victory over the machines, and the score clues us in by dropping the machine's percussive theme entirely.

Bowing Out

After The Terminator, Fiedel continued to work in TV while building his Hollywood résumé. He composed scores for films as varied as Fright Night, The Big Easy, and Johnny Mnemonic. He would also collaborate with Cameron on Terminator 2 and True Lies.

But then, in 1999, Fiedel disappeared from the Hollywood scene, never to be heard from again. To this day, they say you can still hear his synthesizer playing a ghostly tune that carries on the breeze during a full moon, lamenting how underappreciated his Fright Night score is (source).

Okay, we're kidding. The guy just retired and decided to pursue other projects. One of those projects is Borrowed Time, a one-man musical memoir about finding your dreams (source). Hey, if that's where your dreams take you, no judgment here.

While we certainly miss Fiedel's achievements, we'll always have The Terminator to remember him by.

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