It has stood the test of time. The sonic logo and the show. It was created by a Grammy award winner and he has gladly accepted his life with parole. Meet Mike Post. “The music for Law & Order was deliberately designed to be minimal to match the abbreviated style of the series. Post wrote the theme song using electric piano, guitar, and clarinet. In addition, scene changes were accompanied by a tone generated by Mike Post. He refers to the tone as ‘The Clang.’ The tone moves the viewer from scene to scene, jumping forward in time with all the importance and immediacy of a judge’s gavel which is what Post was aiming for when he created it. While reminiscent of a jail door slamming, it is actually an amalgamation of ‘six or seven’ sounds, including the sound made by 500 Japanese men walking across a hardwood floor. The sound has become so associated with the Law & Order brand that it was also carried over to other series of the franchise.”
Mike Post (Leland Michael Postil) is a musician, composer, arranger and producer has long been considered the most successful composer in television history. Born and raised in Los Angeles County’s San Fernando Valley, the son of an architect, Post began his study of music with piano lessons at the age of six. By fifteen, he was playing club dates. He graduated from Grant High School in 1962 with Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees and Magnum PI’s Tom Selleck. He won his first Grammy Award at age 23 for Best Instrumental Arrangement on Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas”, a number 2 hit song in 1968. Post played for virtually everyone active in the LA recording scene during this time. Most notably he worked on all of Sonny and Cher’s early hits, starting with I Got You Babe. He formed The First Edition, featuring then unknown bassist/vocalist, Kenny Rogers. Post’s debut as producer led to the group’s Top Five single, I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In). At 24, Post became Musical Director for The Andy Williams Show, becoming the youngest musician in TV history to hold such a position. Later, he returned to television as a producer for The Mac Davis Show. He also began designing stage shows—putting together acts for artists like Dolly Parton and Ronny Milsap. Post also produced Dolly Parton’s hit album 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs in 1981. Much later, in 1997, he produced Van Halen’s Van Halen III album. He’s contributed arrangements to several Ray Charles LP’s, produced, arranged and co-wrote (with Stephen Geyer) the Theme from The Greatest American Hero, which became a #1 record for singer Joey Scarbury. In 1981 Post hit the Top 10 again with his own recording of The Theme from Hill Street Blues, which featured guitarist Larry Carlton.
His career in television started in 1970. Over the years, he’s written the music for seven thousand hours of TV including: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order Criminal Intent, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, The Rockford Files, Magnum PI, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, The A-Team, Wiseguy, Hunter, The Commish, Quantum Leap, Doogie Howser MD, Blossom, Hooperman, The White Shadow, Hardcastle & McCormick, Byrds of Paradise, News Radio, Silk Stalkings, and Renegade. Theme songs from The Rockford Files, The Greatest American Hero, Hill Street Blues, and L.A. Law all became chart topping records and landed Post four of his five Grammy Awards. In 1996 he won the Emmy for outstanding achievement in Main Title composition for the critically acclaimed Murder One.
This is the most successful sound in television history. It is, of course, the signature bleat from “Law & Order,” something I surely did not need to tell you, which by itself is a measure of its greatness. Not a lot of shows employ this sort of aural calling card, perhaps because coming up with the perfect sound is not easy. Imagine invoking an entire television series and its themes with an audio flourish that lasts no more than a few seconds. Not a theme song—that’s a different matter, and far easier to create—just a fleeting tone, honk, clang or other noise. The Hall of Fame for such sounds would include the eerie four-tone introduction to “The Twilight Zone”—distinctive and evocative, setting the stage for weird, supernatural goings-on. And the ticking timepiece of “60 Minutes”—an urgent, attention-must-be-paid sound perfect for a newsmagazine. And the shutter-click of “NCIS,” with its suggestion of “pause and examine closely”—the show’s dominant law-enforcement tool. Towering over them all, though, is the “Law & Order” dun-dun. Or chung-chung. Or bah-bonk. Or DA-doink. Or however you want to describe it; everyone who tries seems to do it differently. You’ll know it if you hear it, which is the very point: This two-beat metallic sort of thunk is instantly recognizable all over the world, so much so that it has become an object of parody. What makes it so right? Well, it helps that the show that gave birth to it is one of the most successful series in TV history, rerun and syndicated and spun off to the point that the sound has been inescapable for 27 years. But mere ubiquity doesn’t crown you king of the TV mnemonics; you have to make a statement, and the right statement. Or, in the case of this particular noise, several statements. It’s the sound of a jail door shutting and locking. Of a judge double-pumping to gavel a courtroom to order. Of all the apprehensions and tensions of an urban night condensed into the length of a heartbeat. Of a scripted TV show with the gravity and aspirations of a well-made documentary. One way to appreciate the brilliance of this or any of TV’s other great noises is to try to come up with a better one. Next time a “Law & Order” episode flits across your television, mentally replace the chunk-chunk with the sound of your doorbell, or car alarm, or washing machine, or all three of those blended together. Not the same, is it? Case closed.
What does Mike Post remember most about the audio logo?
Well, first off, let me work backwards. I had this friend Dick Wolf, who had been a writer on a show that I did before Law and Order, called Hill Street Blues. And he called me on a phone one day and he said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea for a show, would you have a drink and meet with me after work it is.” Absolutely sure. I liked him as a guy, just a nice guy. So we sit down, and this is in the eighties and he says, “Our TV dramas about cops and doctors and lawyers and all the rest, they’re not syndicating well. All syndication is really, really obsessed with half hours, like the Cosby Show and Family Ties and stuff like that.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m aware of that, I am aware of.” And then he says, “So I have this idea.” And he said, “We’ll shoot it as an hour show, but the first half hour will be the crime and the cops and the second half hour will be the lawyers and the prosecution and a trial.” And I said, “Well, what are you saying? You’re going to shoot it as an hour, but you’re going to syndicate it in half hours.” He goes, “Right.” I went, “That’s brilliant.” I said, “What are you going to call it?” He said, “Law and Order.” I said, “I’m in, count me in, please, please.” And he goes, “Well I’m not sure what it’s going to pay and you’re the number one guy out there and just knowing you were interested, it’ll help me in my sales job to the studio and then subsequently the network.” So I said, “I don’t care what you pay me, just let me in. Let me in, because this is a great idea.” So he wrote a script; I loved this script. The studio and the network loved it and we shot it. And I did everything, I did the theme, the complete theme, which is a minute and some odd seconds long. And at the very last, I get a call from the dub stage when they’re mixing all the dialogue and music and everything together. And it’s Dick. And he goes, “Hey listen, I’ve decided that when we change scenes for most scenes, I’m going to date stamp it with a little, just say where we are and what the date is.” And I said, “Okay.” And he said, “I need a really distinctive sound for those scene changes.” And I said, “Well, fantastic. Why don’t you call sound effects since I don’t do sound, I do music.” And he goes, “No, no, no, no, please come on.” I said, “I am not a sound effects guy, for God’s sakes. I’m a composer, this is art.” And he goes, “Archsmart, I need a sound. Give me a sound.” So I said, “All right. All right.” So I spent a day and a half sampling jail cell doors and clangs and I found a bunch of stuff that was weird. Like a bunch of men stomping on a floor, barefoot in Japan. It’s like 200 guys stomping on the floor. And then I sampled some drums, I put it all together and I’ve got this chung, chung, ding, ding, chin, chin, whatever the hell you want to call it. And that’s what you’re referring to. So he’s of course sent me a note, maybe five years, 10 years after Law and Order, the original was so successful and they’d made t-shirts with done, done or whatever on it and all the stuff. And he’s send a note he simply said, “You’ve written a lot of great music in your life and won’t you feel terrible that all you’ll ever really be known for are two notes that aren’t even music that are just a sound.” I didn’t laugh to, what the hell.
And what does he think of when he hears it now, after all these years?
I laugh, I laugh. I think the best testimony to it being effective as and to speak to how you’ve labeled it to, to be in a sonic logo. Once got a letter from a principal of a very large high school in, I think Cincinnati. Someplace in Ohio, Cleveland, or Cincinnati. And this lady said, “You’ve made my job so much easier.” She said, “When I need a student to come to my office for disciplinary reasons.” She goes, “I go on the Intercom, of course. And before I say his name or her name, I simply go ding, ding, or Chung, Chung.” And then I say, “John Smith, please come to the principal’s office.” And she goes, “It strikes fear in the hearts of all of them.” Hey, I thought that was really cool. I went, “Well, okay. That’s some validation someplace that it did the job.” And really and truly what Dick originally called me for I guess, and in your survey, with your students it would be true and in other words, can you make something that’s so distinctive that when people hear it, they know exactly what it represents. So I guess that’s successful. I think what happens as it applies to marketing, is that once you get a sound for something and the oral experience attaches to a visual experience and eventually is part of something that is emotional, so that people react to it. So at first they just reacted to the show, to the drama, to the acting, to the visual part of it and then you attach this to it and this feeds off of that. And then eventually that feeds off of this, right? Isn’t that marketing thing now? About five weeks ago, my agent forwarded an email that came to their office from ESPN, from a radio producer at ESPN. And they said... This producer was so straight to the point. He goes, look, “We don’t have anything to talk about on ESPN radio.” He said, “We’re dead in the water. We couldn’t think of what competition we could create that would bracket with 64 like the March Madness.” So he said, “We came up with doing 64 greatest TV action adventure themes of all time.” And so as we were putting it together he said, “It dawned on us that one guy had about 12 of them, so we thought we’d reach out and see if that guy would talk on the radio.” And I called him right away and I said, “Listen, I’m actually a fan of both the people that are your hosts.” And I said, “I actually listened to him in a car and I think that they’re great and I’m a sports guy anyways.” I said, “I’d love to do it.” So I did three separate interviews over the ensuing weeks, while the public was voting on this. And it was bracketed, and I did have... I don’t know, I had a bunch of them in there and I kept staying alive with one or more of them in the process of voting. And so it came down to the finals and I talked to them the night before their final voting. And it was the theme from Dukes of Hazzard against the theme from The A-Team. And I’d done The A-team and so they called me the next day with the great news that I had actually won this competition and I laughed my butt off.
What does he enjoy producing more: artists and themes?
I started out thinking I was going to be, a rock and roll record producer and an arranger. And I thought that that’s where this whole thing was going to go because I had made it as a studio guitar player, young and I played on my first hip when I was nineteen which was, I Got You Babe by Sonny and Cher and I thought, “Well, I’m off to the races as a guitar player.” And then I had ideas as an arranger. And then in order to protect the idea as this an arranger I became a record producer, so that a producer wasn’t changing the ideas I was messing around with musically and blah, blah, blah. And then when my friend Steven Cannell, who had never sold a script. Started to get a little bit of traction as a writer in television, we were hanging out just as buddies and he kept saying, “I think your music would be great on TV. I think you’d be really good at this.” And I’m going, “No, no, I’m in a rock and roll business. I don’t need all this television baloney, I’m in a rock and roll focus.” He finally got shows on the airwave he had the say as a producer and not just as a writer. And the minute I sat down to write music for a piece of film that didn’t have any music with it I felt like, “I’m home. I mean this is where I belong, this is what I should be doing.” There are basically two jobs there. The number one job is to create a theme that orally decides that identifies the show and relates to the show. So the first one anybody would know about that myself and my late partner Pete Carpenter did was the Rockford Files. But we also did all the music in the interior of the show called the score, the underscore Like Law and Order. I’ve done every note of Law and Order for 30 years. So I’ve yes, writing the themes is great and it’s satisfying and it’s fun to work closely with the producer and put into musical terms what he’s saying in English words to me. And he’s describing his hopes and his dreams for the project. It really is technically so much fun to take an entire 42 minutes of programming, 41 minutes of programming and put a music that makes a funnier parts funnier and the sadder part sadder and sexier part sexier and so on and so forth. I love in being part of enhancing drama or comedy to an audience, so that’s really a fun job.
Not surprisingly, Post thinks television and movie music is pretty important.
So I’ll give you a little hint that, so I’m from North Hollywood, California, right? And I still live in the same place and there’s a buddy of mine that’s 13 years older than me, it’s from the same place. And we get together often and talk about this stuff. And his name is John Williams. And one example of, we’ve done a couple of dog and pony shows together because it’s pretty funny. We’re actually the exact same guy, he’s professorial and legit not... But that’s complete baloney. He’s like me, he’s just a musician, he’s just happy to have a gig and happy to be working and tremendous sense of humor. Funny as hell. So at any rate, for this one thing that we did, they showed jaws. They showed some of the saints and jaws without music. And they were downright funny without music. They weren’t scary at all. And then you put the music in there and everybody’s going, “Holy moly, somebody’s going to die here.” So it’s pretty funny and they did some of my stuff the same way and it is... You’re 100% right. I don’t know why music does what it does. It’s magic, it really is magic going what it does for people’s memories, for people’s, for all the good parts of life and all the sad parts of life, I don’t know. I’ve been doing it my whole life and technically I know everything there is to know about it technically. From an emotional standpoint I still, honestly I’m just feeling mystified by it and in awe of it. I don’t know why, I know technically everything about it, I’ve been doing it my whole life. However, I can sit and play Bb/F to F and go, “God, why does that sound that way? Why does it affect me that way? Even after all these years, the simplest thing still affects me so strongly.” People say, “God, you must be so proud.” And pride is not the right word at all. I’m proud that I can work hard and I’m proud that I’ve never done anything that I couldn’t look myself in a mirror about it. I’m proud that I’ve never been sued and I’ve never sued anybody. I’ve never felt cheated, and I know I’ve never cheated anyone and but pride is when you write something that you think is good, I’m honestly just the opposite. I get humbled by it and I’d go, “How in the hell did that happen?” And so your description, I will use that by the way. I just the guy that was standing there that got handed the notes and then somebody else is going to get added them next time, right?
So, Post is a big fan of John Williams, any others?
My God. I mean, come on friend. It’s like Johnny is, he is just this Mount Everest of talent that... I mean, it’s funny, the things that did I love are in one sense the most common things. I mean, if you could write a theme that’s more... That means more and is just so automatic than Star Wars, I haven’t heard it yet. I mean, now everybody says that, but I’m also the same way about... My wife and I were just flicking around and we happen to hit the natural, right at the home run sequence that Randy Newman did. And I mean, you cannot write a cue any better than that. I don’t care how long you do this or how good you are or how... it’s just perfect, it’s absolutely perfect. And I mean, I was a big fan growing up of television and I was raised on a TV. Raised on a radio and raised on a TV. And so when I think back to my youth and the stuff that really moved me is like, I loved the theme from Lassie, I loved that thing. And then I met Nathan Scott who had written it and became friends with his son, Tom Scott the saxophone player. And then I loved the theme from Wild Wild West, I thought that was great. And then I got to work with Bob Conrad and be friends with him. I was a huge fan of The Great Escape the movie and then to get to work with Garner. And James Garner and do Rockford and all that. Just what a dream experience I’ve had to have all these idols. Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, and not that Bach isn’t an idol. I certainly never got to meet him, but I got to study his music. I’m all over the map, I’m one of those guys... There is no such thing as bad music, there’s music that isn’t performed really well or this or that, but I never heard any bad music. It’s hard to screw it up to be honest with you. The really weird part of doing this for a living, whether you’re doing it for commercials or you’re doing it for big scores or you’re doing it for symphonic music honesty guide, there’s 12 of them. Okay. The 13th one’s called an octave. So there were 12 notes in a chromatic scale. There are 12 different tones that make up a chromatic one ochre scale, right? The 13th one is a repeat of the first one. So just from a math standpoint, you’ve got to sit down and go, “Wait a second. This isn’t quantum physics, this isn’t molecular biology. This is finite, right? There’s only 12 of these things. I mean, do the math. Come on.” And then you dive into the deep hole that this all goes all the way to China, which is, “No, no. There’s only 12 of them.” And let’s look at the ways that they can sound. Listen to the different things that can happen with those 12 bricks. You only got 12 bricks to make this wall and everything else is a repeat. So wouldn’t you run out of colors? Wouldn’t you run... Nope. Nope, how? It’s so magical, it’s so crazy. And then you think about everything that’s happened in our lifetime, electronically and digitally and you see the possibilities and you go, “Wow.” Then you go back and listen to Stravinsky or Orbach or anybody that lasted and you go, “How did these guys pull this off when the instruments that were made in those days weren’t even in tune and more couldn’t be played in tuning any effect.” And you’ll listen to that music and you go, “This is magic. This isn’t from this earth. This is some other kind of something, this is crazy.” I once had a really long conversation with Steven Bochco about, how many words are in a dictionary and how many notes are available in a scale. And we just laughed and laughed and laughed because we nerded ourselves into the next area going just thinking about creativity and then we compared it to painting and how many colors could you get. And then we painted it just we compared it to sculpture and it’s just crazy nerdy stuff but very interesting and I’ve said a bunch of times to anybody that would listen to my nerdy stuff. And I think it goes back to the beginning of time, the beginning of man in the cave that all the really tough guys would go out and kill it. And then the strong guys would drag it back and the people that had the expertise will pull the skin off it and then the cookers would cook it, right? And while all that was happening, there were always a couple of weirdos over there drawing on the wall of the cave or there was one guy even before language was beaten on something and howl and all the civilians were over there and they looked over at the weirdos and went, “Who are these Martians? And why can’t I do that? And why does it make me feel something?” Art and you go, “Yeah, it is, it is. If there’s a God, that’s how he speaks. He speaks in nature and he speaks in art and he speaks in emotionally, I think.” I’m just lucky to have a life on it, to be able to do it and make a living from it.
And his favorite artists that he’s worked with?
Unequivocally, Ray Charles just had idolized him since the first day I heard him. And then to get to meet him and then to find out that he liked my stuff too and that he wanted to me to do some arranging forum and hang with him, that was awesome. Between record production and composing for film television, I was Music Director of the Andy Williams Show for two years when I was 24. And then later the music director and the producer for the Mac Davis Show for a couple of years. And through that I got to work with the craziest assortment of really talented people from the opera singer Kathleen Battle to Dolly Parton to Ray, to Aretha, to Gladys Knight. All these just super, super talented people. So it’s hard to say your favorite but if you had to have just one, I’d say Ray Charles. Yeah. He and I had this great conversation a couple of times of... His ears were just deadly. I mean, just absolute. I mean, things would squeak and he’d tell you what key it was in. But I said, “I think that your ears...” And he goes, “It’s such baloney, because imagine how much I’d be able to digest if I could read music?” And he said, “Braille reading music takes so bloody long and you can’t read braille music and play at the same time. You’ve got to read a couple of bars and then you play it. And then you read a few more bars.” He goes, “He goes, nah.” He said, “I think I’d be a much better piano player if I could read music.” And I just knew it, okay whatever. On the other hand, there are people that you hear that are beyond talented. That are beyond almost beyond genius. Listen to Yo-Yo Ma and if you know anything about the cello you go, “Wait a minute, that’s impossible. Nobody can do that. No, that’s not possible on that instrument.” And then there he is doing it and he can see and he’s not... He hasn‘t had in quotes, a leg up of not being distracted by sight he could just zone in on what he’s doing. It’s a very difficult thing to figure out. And as you can tell, I’ve pondered all of this probably too much.
Any final thoughts from Post?
You’ll never interview or speak to a luckier person than me. I’ve been making a living at music my whole life actually, since I was 16. I’m a shining example of if you do something that you loved and obsessed with and you’d be doing at night if they didn’t pay you to do it during the day you never actually go to work, you just go to play.