The New York Times (2017) called it “the most successful sound in television history.” I will write it, you will hear it … the “Law and Order” sound. Got it? Can you spell it? Chun, Chun or Dun Dun? It’s in your head now, right? I apologize. Elegant, powerful, and minimally beautiful, that aural ear worm, known in scientific circles as Involuntary Musical Imagery (IMI), was created by composer Mike Post almost 30 years ago when the police/courtroom procedural debuted. Airing multiple times a day on a host of network, streaming and cable platforms, it will certainly endure for another 30.
Perhaps it reminds you of a prison cell door locking. Maybe it recalls the sound of a judge’s gavel or a lyrical take on the click, click, snap of handcuffs manacling. The second-and-a-half “melody” is the sound of justice, an auditory signifier and signified. The sound acts as a cue to complement a haikuesque title card ( e.g. “Hudson University, 62 Centre Street, Wednesday, August 28th), which indicates a change in time, tempo, terrain within the narrative arc of the program. The visual prompt — an arresting contrast of stark black behind an ivory white Friz Quadrata font — is dramatically understated and, along with its signature sonorous partner, compels viewer attention and enacts memories.
The sound informs another sort of binary in the comfortable and certain sense of knowing assuredness simultaneous with a slight discomfiture related to an almost synesthetic experience of seeing sound. How and why does this near-Pavlovian association occur? Scientists, analyzing the brain’s gray matter volume, believe it is neurologically similar to daydreaming (Stoica, 2016). Psychologists and mathematicians have similarly explored related phenomena. Or, perhaps, the stickiness of the immediately identifiable sound is grounded in philosophy. It is the yin and yang of two opposing but complementary tones that form a whole, a non-conflictive binary, black and white, law and order.
The Dun Dun Sound
Thank you for your post. I really enjoyed it. Law and Order is one of my favorite shows of all time. The Dun Dun sound happens to be one of my favorite aspects of the program. I actually look forward to hearing it whenever I watch an episode of the original series or one of the spinoffs, like SVU. Thus, I am glad someone has written about the sound.
Great post, David! I once heard this sound as someone's ringtone in an airport -- it was amazing to watch everyone's faces light up around me, because we all recognized the sound. I love the idea that Law and Order is so ingrained into pop culture that the "dun-dun" sound has now intiated a Pavlovian response in all of us. Maybe that was why, when leaving the airport that day, I felt like I needed to put on a detective's hat and go solve a crime!
Involuntary Musical Imagery
Fascinating! I used to mimic this sound on the plaground all the time as a kid (and the Law and Order theme song was one of my favorites). I'm so charmed by Hayley's anecdote that everyone in the airport knew the two notes immediately--what a fun collective experience!
I loved your pairing of the two-note riff with a variety of images drawn from our cultural imagination of the legal system. Certainly it says something that Law and Order is so deeply entrenched in the American imaginary.
(Also, I both love and hate that clip. It was hilarious to hear, but now it's still in my head five minutes later! Now I know what to post to get the last word in a digital dispute...)
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