Where did pop culture’s most dramatic sound come from?

Monday, February 7th, 2022

Where did pop culture’s most dramatic sound — dun, dun duuun! — come from?

On screen, a dramatic “dun, dun duuun” has appeared in everything from Disney’s Fantasia to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to The IT Crowd. In 2007, a YouTuber scored a video of a melodramatic prairie dog with the three beats, earning over 43m views and a solid place in internet history. Yet though many of us are familiar with the sound, no one seems to know exactly where it came from. Try to Google it and … dun, dun, duuun! Its origins are a mystery.

Taken together, these three duns are what’s known as a sting — a brief bit of music that media producers can use to break up the action or punctuate a theatrical moment.


Suspense, an American horror show broadcast on CBS Radio between 1942 and 1962, was filled to the brim with sound effects and dramatic stings. Just over three minutes into its first episode (after bells, the sound of a train, and plenty of piano), a three-beat sting lingers on its last note when a man discovers his wife is potentially an undead poisoner. But it’s difficult to pinpoint the very first on-air dun dun duuun, and it’s likely the musical phrase predates the radio.


In 1940’s Fantasia, Disney’s recording of Stravinsky’s 1913 Rite of Spring emphasised two duns and a lingering duuun at the end of a dinosaur battle (though the composer’s original features a similar three beats, they’re not as pronounced or as recognisable as the sound we know today). From Tom and Jerry to Ren and Stimpy, dun dun duuuns also cropped up in cartoons, ensuring the sound became a television mainstay. Young Frankenstein’s version debuted in the 1970s, and it was this recording that was used for the dramatic prairie dog viral vid.


In 1983, recordings library KPM Music asked Walter to produce four vinyl albums of musical phrases known as The Editor’s Companion. With an orchestral lineup of around 35 to 40 people, Walter recorded hundreds of tracks over the course of 18 months, including chase music, sleighbells, and a four-second, three-beat sting called Shock Horror (A) that comprises the notes D#, C and F#.

“It’s musical shorthand which says a lot very quickly,” Walter says of the first of five melodramatic exclamations that run all the way down to Shock Horror (E).


The devil’s interval is a dissonant combination of tones that unsettles the listener because it is unresolved. You’ve likely heard the devil’s interval as the opening two notes to The Simpson’s theme tune, as well as the beginning of Maria from West Side Story (Walter helpfully sings both). Yet in both cases, the tension is immediately resolved with the next note, producing a pleasant effect. “But if you don’t resolve it, you’re left feeling unsatisfied,” Walter explains, “That’s what it boils down to.”

When Walter was charged with creating horror stings for The Editor’s Companion, “the obvious thing to do” for Shock Horror (A) was use the interval — his is “just an extremely abbreviated version, about as short as you can get”.


The recording has since been used in SpongeBob SquarePants, Roseanne, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Beavis and Butt-Head, as well as adverts for cereal, snacks and a home improvement store.

The Gnomes of Zürich are at work again

Sunday, February 6th, 2022

I was introduced to the term “Gnomes of Zürich“ by Steve Jackson’s humorous conspiracy-themed game, Illuminati, where the secretive Swiss bankers were one of the factions vying for global domination. I never hunted down the origin of the term though:

Although Swiss bankers had been criticised in Britain since the 1950s, the term “gnome of Zürich” originated in a crisis meeting of the Labour politicians in November 1964. The politicians blamed Swiss bankers for raising speculation against the pound. During the meeting, politician George Brown criticised the Swiss bankers and said, “The gnomes of Zürich are at work again.” The term “Gnomes of Zürich” was then used by many other politicians of the time. Then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson vowed to resist the gnomes’ sinister power.

A method of measuring relative power so that they can live together in peace

Saturday, February 5th, 2022

Peace and stability are only secure, Carroll Quigley argues in Weapons Systems and Political Stability, as long as power relationships are clear to all concerned:

Conflict arises when there is no longer a consensus regarding the real power situation, and the two parties, by acting on different subjective pictures of the objective situation, come into collision.

The purpose of such a conflict, arising from different pictures of the facts, is to demonstrate to both parties what the real power relationship is in order to reestablish a consensus on it.


Unfortunately this kind of fighting between young boys now occurs much more rarely than it did before (say a century ago) with the result that boys of today grow up to manhood and go off to fight, or to run the State Department, without any conception of the real nature of power and its relationships. This lack is, at the same time, one of the causes of juvenile delinquency and of adults’ mistaken belief that the role of war is the total destruction, or the unconditional surrender, of one’s opponent, instead of being what war really is, a method of measuring relative power so that they can live together in peace.

The role of any conflict, including war, is to measure a power relationship so that a consensus, that is a legal relationship, may be established. War cannot be abolished either by renouncing it or by disarming, unless some other method of measuring power relationships in a fashion convincing to all concerned is set up. And this surely cannot be done by putting more than a hundred factually unequal states into a world assembly where they are legally equal. This kind of nonsense could be accepted only by people who have been personally so remote from real power situations all their pampered, well-protected lives that they do not even recognize the existence of the power structures in which they have lived and which, by protecting them, have prevented them from being exposed to conflict sufficiently to come to know the nature of real power.

The cognitive stratification of American society was not a problem 100 years ago

Friday, February 4th, 2022

Back in 1961, the SAT helped get Charles Murray into Harvard from a small Iowa town by giving him a way to show that he could compete with applicants from Exeter and Andover:

Ever since, I have seen the SAT as the friend of the little guy, just as James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard, said it would be when he urged the SAT upon the nation in the 1940s.

Conant’s cause was as unambiguously liberal in the 1940s as income redistribution is today. Then, America’s elite colleges drew most of their students from a small set of elite secondary schools, concentrated in the northeastern United States, to which America’s wealthy sent their children. The mission of the SAT was to identify intellectual talent regardless of race, color, creed, money, or geography, and give that talent a chance to blossom.


It makes no difference, however, that the charges about coaching are wrong, just as it makes no difference that the whole idea that rich parents can buy their children high SAT scores is wrong. One part of the indictment is true, and that one part overrides everything else: the children of the affluent and well educated really do get most of the top scores. For example, who gets the coveted scores of 700 and higher, putting them in the top half-dozen percentiles of SAT test-takers? Extrapolating from the 2006 data on means and standard deviations reported by the College Board, about half of the 700+ scores went to students from families making more than $100,000 per year. But the truly consequential statistics are these: Approximately 90 percent of the students with 700+ scores had at least one parent with a college degree. Over half had a parent with a graduate degree.

In that glaring relationship of high test scores to advanced parental education, which in turn means high parental IQ, lies the reason that the College Board, politically correct even unto self-destruction, cannot bring itself to declare the truth: the test isn’t the problem. The children of the well educated and affluent get most of the top scores because they constitute most of the smartest kids. They are smart because their parents are smart. The parents have passed their smartness along through parenting practices that are largely independent of education and affluence, and through genes that are completely independent of them.

The cognitive stratification of American society — for that’s what we’re talking about — was not a problem 100 years ago. Many affluent people were smart in 1907, but there were not enough jobs in which high intellectual ability brought high incomes or status to affect more than a fraction of really smart people, and most of the really smart people were prevented from getting those jobs anyway by economic and social circumstances (consider that in 1907 roughly half the adults with high intelligence were housewives).

From 1907 to 2007, the correlation between intellectual ability and socioeconomic status (SES) increased dramatically. The socioeconomic elite and the cognitive elite are increasingly one. If you want the details about how this process worked and how it is transforming America’s class structure, I refer you to The Bell Curve (1994), the book I wrote with the late Richard Herrnstein. For now, here’s the point: Imagine that, miraculously, every child in the country were to receive education of equal quality. Imagine that a completely fair and accurate measure of intellectual ability were to be developed. In that utopia, a fair admissions process based on intellectual ability would fill the incoming classes of the elite colleges predominantly with children of upper-middle-class parents.

In other words, such a perfect system would produce an outcome very much like the one we see now. Harvard offers an easy way to summarize the revolution that accelerated after World War II. As late as 1952, the mean SAT Verbal score of the incoming freshman class was just 583. By 1960, the mean had jumped to 678. In eight years, Harvard transformed itself from a college with a moderately talented student body to a place where the average freshman was intellectually in the top fraction of 1 percent of the national population. But this change did not mean that Harvard became more socioeconomically diverse. On the contrary, it became more homogeneous. In the old days, Harvard had admitted a substantial number of Boston students from modest backgrounds who commuted to classes, and also a substantial number of rich students with average intelligence. In the new era, when Harvard’s students were much more rigorously screened for intellectual ability, the numbers of students from the very top and bottom of the socioeconomic ladder were reduced, and the proportion coming from upper-middle-class backgrounds increased.

Power can become a question of morale

Thursday, February 3rd, 2022

Power, Carroll Quigley notes in Weapons Systems and Political Stability, can become a question of morale:

It means that the actor himself is convinced of the correctness and inevitability of his actions to the degree that his conviction serves both to help him to act more successfully and to persuade the opposition that his (the actor’s) actions are in accordance with the way thins should be. Strangely enough, this factor of morale, which we might like to reserve for men because of its spiritual or subjective quality, also operates among animals. A small bird will often be observed in summer successfully driving a crow or even a hawk away from its nest, and a dog who would not ordinarily fight at all will attack, often successfully, a much larger beast who intrudes onto his front steps or yard. This element of subjective conviction which we call morale is the most significant aspect of the ideological element in power relationships and shows the intimate relationship between the various elements of power from the way in which it strengthens both force and persuasion.

It also shows something else which contemporary thinkers are very reluctant to accept. That is the operation of natural law. For the fact that animals recognize the prescriptive rights to property, as shown in the fact that a much stronger beast will yield to a much weaker one on the latter’s home area, or that a hawk will allow a flycatcher to chase it from the area of the flycatcher’s nest, shows a recognition of property rights which implies a system of law among beasts. In fact, the singing of a bird (which is not for the edification of man or to attract a mate, but is a proclamation of a residence area to other birds of the same habits) is another example of the recognition of rights and thus of law among non-human life.

The Great Santini exemplifies what we now call toxic masculinity

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2022

I recently watched The Great Santini, and it opens with the titular protagonist leading his Marine aviators against Naval aviators in one-on-one dogfights, lining up their sights and declaring when they would take the kill shot. This seemed odd to me, because the setting was 1962, and the fighter jets were F-4 Phantoms — which did not have old-fashioned guns going into the Vietnam war. (That was one of the major points of Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.)

Sure enough, the Phantoms were an update to the book:

The story, for the most part, follows the book. The movie’s major divergence is the absence of Ben Meecham’s Jewish best friend Sammy. The spelling of the family’s surname was also changed from Meecham to Meechum. Also changed is Meecham’s aircraft; in the book, he flies and commands a squadron of F-8 Crusaders, while in the film the fighters shown are F-4 Phantom IIs.

The F-8 was the last American fighter with guns as its primary weapon, earning it the title “The Last of the Gunfighters”.

The Great Santini exemplifies what we now call toxic masculinity, and his wisecracking older daughter compares him to Godzilla — which got me to look up the illustrious monster, who made his American debut in 1956:

Gojira is a portmanteau of the Japanese words: gorira (“gorilla”) and kujira (“whale”), owing to the fact that in one planning stage, Godzilla was described as “a cross between a gorilla and a whale”, due to its size, power and aquatic origin.

I was surprised when the oldest son’s high school basketball coach made a reference to — pardon my French — poontang, because I thought that was a term only popularized after Vietnam, but the term goes back decades:

1920s: alteration of French putain ‘prostitute’.

It does not consist of an effort to get someone else to adopt our point of view

Tuesday, February 1st, 2022

Persuasion is misunderstood, Carroll Quigley argues in Weapons Systems and Political Stability:

It does not consist of an effort to get someone else to adopt our point of view or to believe something they had not previously believed, but rather consists of showing them that their existing beliefs require that they should do what we want. This is a point which has been consistently missed by the propaganda agencies of the United States government and is why such agencies have been so woefully unsuccessful despite expenditures of billions of dollars. Of course it requires arguing from the opponent’s point of view, something Americans can rarely get themselves to do because they will rarely bother to discover what the opponent’s point of view is.