I don’t suppose you have a copy of "Dramatic Sting (A)" by D.S. Walter do you? It is rather old...oh you do! That’s wonderful! My name? Yes... it’s D...S...Walter.
Dun dun Duuuuun!
DA DA DAAAAA!
So run the usual vocalisations of a three-note dramatic sting which is probably one of the best-known musical clichés of our time.
It’s so clichéd in fact that it can only ever be used in an ironic way - it’s become rather like a musical equivalent of the Wilhelm Scream. You can hear it regularly on BBC Radio comedy programmes and in loads of American films and TV programmes. In fact, it’s the go-to piece for any programme that wants to feature a mock-dramatic revelation, sometimes in the original instrumentation, other times sung by a character:
But where does it come from and who wrote it? Unpicking this...shock horror...is not as easy as you might think. It doesn’t help that there are in fact two versions of this little interrupted cadence, both with different titles, but which are used interchangeably.
The cue itself is a piece of library music from the back catalogue of one of the largest providers of such music, KPM (Keith-Prowse-Maurice), which through a succession of mergers and demergers is now part of the American APM group.
As a result, rather like "Happy Birthday", the recording of the sting is actually in copyright, so all links here go to the APM website where the track can be auditioned.
The first arrangement, called Dramatic Sting (A) is track number #5.5 on KPM Album 0022 The Editor’s Companion from 1984. You can hear it alongside its less well-known brother, Dramatic Sting (B).
It’s described as "Comedy-Dramatic - Melancholic exclamation" so it’s pretty clear it always was intended to be corny - the razzing trumpet crescendo in the final chord is the clue. The three notes in the sting, Eb, C and F#, in particular the last two create a diminished fifth; what’s called a tri-tone, sometimes known as the "Devil’s Chord".
As we know, the Devil always has the best tunes, and the interval between Middle C and F# in is often used to evoke something a bit evil, the most famous being the opening viola solo of Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre.
The second arrangement, which is perhaps a little less camp, isn’t heard as frequently, but is still familiar. It’s called Dramatic Impact (1), and appears on KPM Album 1246 Archives 2: Drama from 1980.
Of course, these 1980s compilation albums are not necessarily the year in which these little pieces were composed, and it certainly feels like they should be older. But are they? The whole purpose of these little stings is that they are supposed to evoke a melodramatic moment, maybe in a slightly noir-ish American B Movie, so they probably aren’t as old as everyone thinks.
The composer who is usually credited with writing Dramatic Sting (A) is Dick Walter, whose name rather pleasingly sounds like a 1940s pulp detective character.
A prolific writer of library music, perhaps his most recognisable composition is the piano piece from the lovely 1980s Yellow Pages adverts featuring J.R. Hartley looking for a copy of Fly Fishing, one of those adverts that somehow enter popular consciousness.
As you can see from his biography, Walker arranged a huge amount of music for some of the biggest BBC light entertainment and comedy programmes of the 1970s and 1980s, so it’s completely believable that his naughty little sting would have seeped into those shows, and thus into popular culture.
Most telling as evidence that Walker must have composed this sting, or at least popularised it, is that it doesn’t appear before the late 1980s.
As can be seen by looking through his IMDB profile, most of his compositions used in films are listed as "uncredited", and since Walker also worked for the BBC as a freelance arranger, it’s unlikely he received a credit on programmes he worked on or that his music featured on.
Library music or stock music companies own vast collections of recordings written specifically for use in TV, adverts and films. For a licencing fee, these companies grant the rights to the pieces off-the-shelf, but the composer rarely gets an onscreen credit. Think of the three pieces in the opening titles of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), all pieces that Terry Jones found in the DeWolfe music library ("Ice Floe 9" by Pierre Arvay, "Country Wide" by Anthony Mawer and "The Big Country" by Keith Papworth - not sure what the whooping llama music is, though).
In the 1960s and 70s in particular, the BBC was a regular user of such libraries, and it was from these that many memorable TV theme tunes originated, for example Mastermind ("Approaching Menace" by Neil Richardson, KMP1055-F2), News at Ten ("The Awakening" by Johnny Pearson, KPM1020) and All Creatures Great and Small ("Piano Parchment", also by Johnny Pearson, KMP1039)
Choosing pieces from these libraries saved all the bother of having to commission original music, although it could cause problems if two programmes chose the same track at roughly the same time, as happened with "Chicken Man" by Alan Hawkshaw (TIM-1017-F2) which found itself as the theme tune to the BBC children’s school drama Grange Hill and charades game show Give Us A Clue on ITV (Thames).
Being in a library with no restrictions to use can also lead to a piece being over-used, as is the ultimate fate of Dramatic Sting (A). Even if it was intended to be serious (although I doubt that was ever on the cards), this little three-note motif has certainly found its place in popular culture.
Which is all you can ask for of three notes, really. And it was the butler all along.