What is Cacophony? Examples in Literature & Types

What is cacophony?

Cacophony refers to a harsh, jarring, discordant sound or effect created by the use of words. In literature and rhetoric, cacophony is intentionally used as a rhetorical device to convey an unsettling, unharmonious mood or tone through the combination of words and sounds employed. An author may utilize cacophony to mirror scenes of chaos, danger, fear or distress in a way that engages the auditory senses.

A well executed cacophony overwhelms with its unresolved, grating quality, evoking a sense of unease, tension or distress that aligns with and reinforces the intended meaning or atmosphere. As a rhetorical device, cacophony harnesses the inherent sounds within words to craft discordant effects that can powerfully amplify emotive impacts on the audience.

Examples of Cacophony

Here are some more common examples of cacophony:

  • Crash, bash, smash – The repetition of similar harsh consonant sounds at the beginning of words creates an unpleasant and jarring effect.
  • Screech, squawk, shriek – Onomatopoeic words describing loud, high-pitched noises have cacophonous qualities through their consonant combinations.
  • Jumble, mumble, grumble – Words depicting confusion or discontent utilize consonant clusters (like ‘mbl’) that sound unpleasant when said aloud.
  • Splat, splatter, spatter – The repeated ‘sp’ digraph and double consonant in the middle produce an abrupt, messy quality of sound.
  • Clink, clank, clatter – Words for metallic noises use combinations of plosive consonants (‘c’, ‘k’, ‘t’) that clash when strung together.
  • Scrabble, scribble, scratch – The repetition of ‘scr’ at the beginning with uneven syllables, which creates an irritating and bothersome effect.
  • Snarl, snap, snarl – Onsets like ‘sn’ followed by short vowels and consonants mimic the harsh sound qualities being described.
  • Bump, thump, thud – Labiodental (‘b’, ‘p’) and dental (‘th’, ‘d’) consonants struck in quick succession sound forceful and jarring.
  • Stumble, mumble, fumble – Consonant blends and doubled letters produce an ungainly and disorganized auditory sensation.

Types of cacophony

There are a few main types of cacophony:

1- Consonantal cacophony

Consonantal cacophony refers to the use of harsh, clashing consonant clusters and sounds within words to create an unpleasant and discordant effect. When consonants that produce abrupt bursts of air like stops (p, t, k) are placed together without vowel breaks they generate a cacophonous quality. Some examples of consonantal cacophony include words like, splinter, sprint, script, and scrap. 

2- Vowel cacophony

The use of vowels in a way that creates discomfort through dissonance rather than harmony. It can occur when short, closed vowels are placed close together or when open vowels are next to more closed ones. Examples of words that demonstrate vowel cacophony include:

  • Itty – The repetition of the short “i” vowel creates tension.
  • Ewe – The “e” and “u” vowels are from opposite ends of the tongue height spectrum.
  • Ouch – The abrupt transition from “ou” to “ch” is jarring.
  • Oaf – The “oa” diphthong followed by a closed “a” clashes.

3- Syllabic cacophony

This type of cacophony refers to using an uneven or unbalanced mix of long and short syllables within words or phrases to create discomfort through disrupted rhythm. Following are examples of syllabic cacophony:

  • Bumbling – The short “u” followed by the long “ing” is staggered.
  • Squirrel – The short “i” and long “e” clash.
  • Cacophony – The long “o” and short “o” sounds are out of sync.
  • Gallop – The short “a” and long “o” don’t flow smoothly.

4- Repetitive cacophony

It demonstrates to deliberately repeating words, phrases or sounds in a way that creates discomfort through excessive redundancy rather than rhythm. Examples are as under :-

  • Bubble bubble bubble – Repeating the short “b” sound becomes grating.
  • Titter tatter totter – The alliteration loses impact through overuse.
  • Ping pong ping ping – The repeated plosives are abrasive.
  • Tut tut tut tut – Continuous tongue clicks become cacophonous.

5- Onomatopoeic cacophony

Onomatopoeic cacophony is the use of onomatopoeia words, that create discomfort through clashing sound effects rather than harmony. Some examples of the onomatopoeic cacophony include:

  • Screech squawk shriek – The varying pitches are discordant.
  • Bang crash thwack – The percussive sounds don’t flow well together.
  • Pop crackle fizz – The plosives and fricatives clash.
  • Hiss spit splutter – The sibilant sounds grate when combined.

6- Grammatical cacophony

Grammatical cacophony refers to intentionally using incorrect or strained grammar, syntax, and word order to create auditory discomfort through disrupted linguistic flow and structure. Some examples of grammatical cacophony include:

  • Subject-verb disagreement: “She walk to the stores.”
  • Dangling modifier: “Running late, the bus sped down the street.”
  • Nonstandard conjugation: “He teached us well.”
  • Unparallel structure: “I went to the park, she swimming at the beach.”
Types of Cacophony In Literature
Types of Cacophony In Literature

Cacophony vs. Euphony

Cacophony and euphony are different types of sounds in writing. Cacophony means harsh, unpleasant sounds. Euphony means pleasant, nice sounds. Cacophony uses words that don’t sound good together. The sounds are rough and don’t flow well. This can show something scary or confusing. Euphony uses words with sounds that go together nicely. The sounds are smooth and easy to listen to. This can show something calming. Examples of cacophony words are, ‘scream’ and ‘crash’, while the words like ‘wave’ and ‘breeze’ make euphony sounds.

Writers use cacophony and euphony on purpose to help show feelings. Cacophony helps show stress or danger. Euphony helps show relaxation or happiness. Both use sounds to impact how the reader feels. So cacophony and euphony are opposites – one uses good sounds, one uses bad sounds, but both help tell the story.

Examples of Cacophony in literature

1- Lord of the Flies by William Golding

“The crowd of children was a tight knot of struggle around the central horror. Ralph blew like a bellows, the air that passed his lips was a stream of scarlet. He blew and blew and the children slowed in their fighting, looking not at him but at the strangeness of the man who lay on the ground.”

Here, Golding describes the savage hunt and killing of the pig. The repetition of harsh consonant sounds like “blow”, “bellows”, “scarlet”, “blow” creates an unpleasant, grating texture that mirrors the violence and gore of the scene. The cacophony emphasizes the distressing nature of the pig’s death.

2- “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare:

“Round about the cauldron go; In the poison’d entrails throw. Toad, that under cold stone Days and nights has thirty-one Swelter’d venom sleeping got, Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.”

In this longer chant, Shakespeare uses repetition of consonant clusters like “cauldron”, “poison’d”, “stone” that clash harshly together. The unpleasant, discordant effect of the cacophony parallels the malevolent intentions and eerie atmosphere of the witches’ spell.

3- “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville

“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down…”

Melville employs repetition of harsh consonant sounds like “maddens”, “torments”, “sinews”, “cakes” that clash together discordantly. The cacophony mirrors Ahab’s maddened inner state and creates an uncomfortable, disturbed atmosphere through its grating auditory effect.

4- “Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney”

“Grendel stalked from the marshes, shadow-walking, until he came on the high hall, the biggest of buildings.”

Heaney uses consonant clusters like “stalked”, “shadow”, “walking”, “hall” that combine harshly. The grating, unpleasant texture emphasizes Grendel’s sinister nature and amplifies the ominous mood as he approaches Heorot through its discordant sound imagery.

Examples of Cacophony In Literature
Examples of Cacophony In Literature

Examples of Cacophony in Pop Culture

1- Joker movie (2019)

“My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face. She told me I had a purpose to bring laughter and joy to the world. Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”

In this monologue, Joaquin Phoenix emphasizes words like “smile”, “happy”, “laughter”, “crazy” with harsh, grating consonant sounds that clash discordantly. The cacophony mirrors the Joker’s disturbed mental state and adds an unsettling tone through its unpleasant auditory effect.

2- “Enter Sandman” by Metallica

“Say your prayers, little one, don’t forget, my son, to include everyone.”

James Hetfield sings this verse with repetition of consonant clusters like “prayers”, “little”, “forget”, “everyone” that grate harshly together. The cacophony enhances the ominous mood and sinister theme of a nightmare through its disturbing, uncomfortable sound quality.

3- “Dance with the Devil” by Immortal Technique

“He said ‘Mom I’m gonna kill you, you ain’t shit to me, your life ain’t worth, half the crack I smoke'”

In this verse, Immortal Technique delivers the lyrics with repetition of harsh consonant sounds like “kill”, “ain’t”, “worth”, “crack” that clash together discordantly. The cacophony parallels the brutality and distress of the scene, where a man threatens his mother’s life. It creates an unpleasant auditory texture that amplifies the intensity of the traumatic moment through its grating, disturbing sound quality.

Related Terms with Cacophony

Here are some related terms to cacophony:

  • Dissonance – Like cacophony, dissonance refers to a harsh, discordant combination of sounds that creates an unpleasant auditory effect. However, dissonance is a broader musical term that can apply to any unpleasant blending of tones, while cacophony specifically relates to the blending of words or language.
  • Harshness – Cacophony produces a harsh, grating quality through its use of clashing consonant sounds. Harshness describes the general abrasive and unpleasant nature of cacophonous textures.
  • Jarring – The discordant blending of sounds in cacophony often causes a jarring and startling effect that disturbs or interrupts the auditory flow.
  • Grating – The consonant combinations that make up cacophony grate harshly against each other, like an unpleasant scraping sound.
  • Clashing – The sounds that constitute cacophony clash discordantly in a way that jars the listener.
  • Discordant – By definition, cacophony involves discordant, incompatible sounds that do not harmonize pleasantly.
  • Dissonant – Like discordant, dissonant refers to the quality of blending unpleasantly versus harmonizing.
  • Abrupt – Abrupt transitions between sounds can contribute to an overall cacophonous effect.
  • Agitated – Cacophony often creates an agitated, disturbed state or mood through its harsh, discordant textures.

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