What is the “Law & Order Sound?”

The “Law & Order sound” first rang in our ears 29 years ago and, as the last remaining iteration of the franchise, Special Victims Unit carries the legacy on as the sexual assault procedural celebrates its 20th anniversary this month.

But what exactly is the “Law & Order sound”? Many people have tried to parse it. Dann Florek, who played Capt. Craigan on both the original and SVU, apparently identified it as “doink doink”, while Richard Belzer calls it the creator’s “cash register sound.”

NBC, the network on which the shows air, reportedly sold a ringtone (you know, back when buying ringtones was a thing) entitled “ching ching”. Buzzfeed offers “bong bong” and “jum jum”, amongst others, the most popular of which is “dun dun”, receiving close to 40,000 votes since the quiz was published in 2016.

Though I’m not well versed in the elements of music composition, to me “dun dun” refers to the ominous string or bass sound that warns of an approaching threat, such as the approaching shark in Jaws or to punctuate a momentous scene in mid-century television shows and movies and, before that, radio shows. In fact, the first result that appears upon Googling “dun dun sound effect” is a string version set to the doge meme. The technical term for this musical sequence is a sting. 

In an email conversation, composer Nico Muhly — who has worked with artists such as Bjӧrk and Usher — told me, “I think the accepted spelling is ‘Dun Dun,’ but I firmly believe in the flexibility of transliteration systems for all music. I would personally prefer ‘dun’ as a plosive,” he adds, “based on the instrumentation of the sound over the affricate ‘ch’ sound, even if it’s there, in a kind of rock paper scissors sort of way.” 

In 1993, Law & Order’s composer and creator of the sound Mike Post told Entertainment Weekly that he thinks of it as “the stylized sound of a jail cell locking,” which makes sense given the series’ focus on bringing criminals to justice.

“I wanted to add something that’s very distinctive but not a literal sound. What I tried to do was jar a little bit,” he continued.

But the sound is actually a combination of several sources. “I sampled a jail door slamming, a couple other things,” he continued in 2005, telling The Television Academy Foundation that he’s not beholden to one name for the sound. “This clunk clunk, ching ching, chong chong thing, whatever you think it is.”

Perhaps the most interesting element of the sound is that of 500 Japanese men stamping their feet on a wooden floor, according to Entertainment Weekly. ”It was a sort of monstrous Kabuki event,” Post told the magazine. ”Probably one of those large dance classes they hold. They did this whole big stamp. Somebody went out and sampled that.”

Post says the Law & Order cast and crew call it the “chung chung”.

Onomatopoeically, this is the closest description of the sound, which does give off a distinctive chime sound of cymbals clanging or a gong banging. Though Post has offered a variety of identifiers for the sound, in the aforementioned 1993 interview with Entertainment Weekly, he called it by another name.

”It’s odd, to be honest,” he says, “when you’ve written a theme that you think is very musical and what everybody wants to talk about is The Clang.”