Definition of Cacophony

Cacophony is a mixture of harsh and discordant noises. As a literary device, cacophony refers to the usage of several unharmonious or dissonant sounds in a line or passage. These unharmonious and dissonant sounds include the explosive consonants k, t, g, d, p, and b, and the hissing sounds ch, sh, and s.

The word cacophony comes from the Greek word kakophonos, which means “bad or evil voice.” The definition of cacophony is opposite to that of euphony, which refers to the usage of pleasant, harmonious sounds. Euphonious sounds include vowels and the liquid consonants l and r and nasal consonants m and n.

Common Examples of Cacophony

It is easy to imagine situations that involve cacophony in everyday life, especially if you are familiar with life in a big city. The mixture of car horns, construction noises, and people yelling is an example of cacophony. Also, if you have ever been to hear a symphony orchestra, that noise that occurs when all of the musicians are tuning their instruments at the same time.

Sometimes we might use more cacophonous sounds if we are upset, choosing shorter words with explosive consonants to display our distress. Most swear words in English have cacophonous sounds. It’s also easy to find examples of cacophony in classic comic books, such as in superhero fight scenes. Comic book artist might use such cacophonous onomatopoeias as “brak,” “koom,” “kapow” to try to convey a sense of the discord in the scene.

Significance of Cacophony in Literature

An author might want to use cacophony in a work of literature to describe a distressing situation, such as in battles scenes or times of emotional upheaval. The author may either use these words with discordant sounds as descriptive words, or in dialogue to display the emotional state of a character.

Examples of Cacophony in Literature

Example #1

Out, damned spot! Out, I say!—One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do ’t. Hell is murky!—Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?—Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.

(Macbeth by William Shakespeare)

In this example of cacophony from William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, the character Lady Macbeth is in the grips of severe mental distress. She is sleepwalking and remembering how she and her husband murdered the former King Duncan. Shakespeare brilliantly uses cacophony in this excerpt to portray Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness. The first, most famous line, is full of explosive consonants and short words—“Out, damned spot! Out I say!” She continues on in this vein with many other strong consonants illustrating her distress.

Example #2

   Hear the loud alarum bells–                  
Brazen bells! What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!      
In the startled ear of night      
How they scream out their affright!        
Too much horrified to speak,        
They can only shriek, shriek,                  
Out of tune,

(“The Bells” by Edgar Allen Poe)

In his famous poem, “The Bells,” Edgar Allen Poe describes several different types of bells. In the first stanza Poe starts with happy bells, like wedding bells, and moves on to more distressing types of bells. In this excerpt from the third stanza, Poe describes the “loud alarum bells.” These bells are full of terror, and Poe uses many cacophony examples to portray this terror. We see words with harsh consonants such as “scream,” “affright,” and “shriek.” By starting off the poem with examples of euphony and moving on to examples of cacophony by the last two stanzas, Poe sonically shows the descent into terror.

Example #3

All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.

(Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell)

George Orwell joined a group of socialist soldiers during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, and wrote a memoir, Homage to Catalonia, to describe his experiences. He witnessed much perversion of facts and truth, which later fed into his dystopian world-view for 1984. In this excerpt, Orwell describes the cacophony of war-propaganda by using cacophonous sounds, such as “screaming,” “hatred,” and “fighting.”

Example #4

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

(“Daddy” by Sylvia Plath)

Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy” contains a large amount of vitriol and anger. The majority of the poem is written in short, clipped lines with many cacophony examples. The above excerpt is the final stanza of the poem where Plath ends with the extremely harsh proclamation, “Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I’m through.” The first line of this stanza is particularly cacophonous, with the words “stake,” “black,” “fat,” and “heart.” Plath effectively uses cacophony to create a poem that is harsh both in content and in sound.

Example #5

It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”

(Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut)

This is another example of cacophony that comes from a novel about war. Kurt Vonnegut lived through the firebombing of Dresden, and wrote about his experiences in part for his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five. In this excerpt, Vonnegut tries to explain the complete devastation that war creates. The excerpt contains many cacophonous words, especially with the repetition of “massacre.” Even the birds, which might be seen as the only positive thing after everything else is dead, respond with the cacophonous sound of “poo-tee-weet.”

Example #6

He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole.

(“The Man I Killed” from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien)

Tim O’Brien writes about the Vietnam War in his collection of stories, The Things They Carried. In this story, “The Man I Killed,” the shock that the narrator feels at killing a man is shown through the short, blunt description of the dead man. There are many cacophonous words in this passage, especially in “leg bent,” “jaw in his throat,” “shut,” and “star-shaped.” The narrator is trying to come to terms with the fact that he has taken another person’s life, and the cacophony in the words mimics the cacophony in the narrator’s mind.

Example #7

People sitting on the sidewalk in the dawn half immolate smoking in their clothes. Like failed sectarian suicides. Others would come to help them. Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. The screams of the murdered. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road. What had they done? He thought that in the history of the world it might even be that there was more punishment than crime but he took small comfort from it.

(The Road by Cormac McCarthy)

Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is a post-apocalyptic account of a man and his child trying to survive. This passage shows how brutal this world has become. McCarthy shows this brutality both through the intense imagery, and also in his choice of words. For example, there are not just dead people but “screams of the murdered,” and “the dead impaled on spikes along the road.” These examples of cacophony portray the intense discord of the setting.

Test Your Knowledge of Cacophony

1. Which of the following statements is the best cacophony definition?
A. A mixture of pleasing, calm sounds.
B. A blend of discordant and harsh noise.
C. A juxtaposition between lovely and awful words.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following lines from Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech contains the most examples of cacophony?
A. To be, or not to be- that is the question:
B. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
C. The fair Ophelia!- Nymph, in thy orisons

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following combinations of letters would lead to the most cacophony?
A. a, e, i, o, u
B. m, n, r, l, w
C. k, t, ch, s, g

Answer to Question #3 Show

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