An Introduction to Cacophony

Cacophony (derives from Greek kakophōnia meaning “bad sounding”), is a blend of discordant sounds; usually a collection of vowelsOpens in new window, consonantsOpens in new window, or syllablesOpens in new window that resonate into clashing sounds; and thus degenerates into a jarring noise.

Cacophony may be done deliberately for rhetorical effect but, when it is accidental it may become a vice. In literature, cacophony involves the use of words or phrases characterized with disagreeable and unmelodious sounds, sounds that are hostile and disturbing. Such negative sounds may include consonants k, t, g, d, p, and b, and the hissing sounds ch, sh, and s; this is the opposite of euphonyOpens in new window.

Examples of Cacophony in Literature
  • “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”
  • Edgar Allen Poe, The Bells
  • “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?
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
  • My stick fingers click with a snicker
    And, chuckling, they knuckle the keys;
    Light-footed, my steel feelers flicker
    And pluck from these keys melodies.
  • John Updike, Player Piano

Cacophonies are mainly used as an instrument for achieving literary effect in writing especially when the authors are narrating a hostile scenario. Using cacophony readily brings to the reader's mind an imaginary disturbing atmosphere of discordant sounds as seen obvious in the verses above.