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.


  1. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    Though not always provoking as much commentaria on account of not being as directly related to monkey business, the eclectic bits of ‘mental floss’ you pick up here and there are one of the reasons i like this blog.

Leave a Reply