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.