The Sound Effect

You hear that "doink doink" and you know...

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As you’ve probably heard by now, NBC recently announced it was canceling Law & Order after 20 seasons on the air. So yes, they’re canceling all the drama, all the crimes, and all the intense courtroom action. But moreover, they’re also canceling this:

The Law & Order “doink doink,”“bamp bamp,” or “chung chung,” depending on who’s talking about it. Like salivating dogs, as soon as we hear that noise we expect some serious crime investigation and, if we’re lucky in the re-runs, a good dose of Jerry Orbach.

The “doink doink” is arguably one of the most recognizable sound effects in modern media, punctuating each episode of the crime drama multiple times. A 2007 Saturday Night Live sketch about Law & Order allowed no scene to start unless the sound effect was played, and its use is also the fastest way to brand a Law & Order parody, such as this one from Sesame Street:

Of course, the “doink doink” isn’t the only sound so strongly associated with a specific show. The Law & Order noise is a close cousin to the bass-guitar interstitials on Seinfeld. Sure, the Seinfeld sounds are technically music, but they function similarly to the Law & Order noise, delivering a sound that cues viewers to a specific show. As a reminder, here’s Seinfeld theme as played by Some Guy in His Bedroom:

A step beyond the Seinfeld slapped-bass and “doink doink” are the music and effects that develop lives of their own, becoming unassociated with their original products. Probably the best example is the theme song for Jaws. Firmly embedded in the collective consciousness, any five-year-old with a pair of water wings knows to make this noise when approaching a pool mate, even if they’ve never seen the movie.

On the other side of the famous sound effects LP are the noises that are pervasive, but rarely associated with one film or show. The most famous of these is the Wilhelm scream, a used and re-used yelp that first appeared in a 1951 Western and subsequently gave voice to several baddies in Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and other movies. The effect has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that back in March, Jon Favreau announced that the sound effect would be included in Iron Man 2, sending movie viewers on an aural scavenger hunt. Below is a collection of Wilhelm scream clips. Three minutes might seem like a long time to watch bits of the same sound over and over again, but it just gets more and more amusing to see exactly how pervasive the Wilhelm scream is in film:

And the Wilhelm scream is just one of several stock sound effects that appear frequently. There’s also the infamous Universal telephone ring (http://www.hollywoodlostandfound.net/sound/uniphone.html) (be warned, it plays automatically), as well as animal noises, bits of laughter, and this police noise from Sim City 3000:

But perhaps the only sound effect more timely right now than Law & Order‘s is this:

…the somewhat indescribable, creepy opening-credit noise for Lost, a show that is soon to have its case closed as well. Doink doink. • 21 May 2010

Meg Favreau is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Big Jewel, The Huffington Post, Table Matters, and The Smew. Her book with photographer Michael Reali, Little Old Lady Recipes: Comfort Food and Kitchen Table Wisdom, was released in November 2011 by Quirk Books. She’s currently the senior editor at the frugal living and personal finance site Wise Bread, and a regular guest on American Public Media’s Marketplace Money.
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