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What is Cacophony?

Licia Morrow
Licia Morrow

A cacophony is a mix of harsh, displeasing, or clashing sounds. It is commonly used to describe poetry, but can also be found in musical composition. Sometimes cacophony is accidental, and sometimes it is used intentionally for artistic effect. Cacophony is the opposite of euphony, which means pleasant, melodious sounds.

Some scholars classify cacophony and dissonance similarly, while other describe dissonance as unharmonious sounds and cacophony as the strategy used by a writer to achieve a discordant effect.

An example of discordant sounds found in poetry would be Hart Crane’s poem "The Bridge" (1930), which uses cacophony to communicate the chaos and evil in the industrial world:

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The nasal whine of power whips a new universe….
Where spouting pillars spoor the evening sky,
Under the looming stacks of the gigantic power house
Stars prick the eyes with sharp ammoniac proverbs,
New verities, new inklings in the velvet hummed
Of dynamos, where hearing’s leash is strummed….
Power’s script, - wound, bobbin-bound, refined-
Is stopped to the slap of belts on booming spools, spurred
Into the bulging bouillon, harnessed jelly of the stars.

Additionally, the following passage from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) shows the chaotic and destructive effects of war:

And being no stranger to the art of war, I have him a description
of cannons, culverins, muskets, carabines, pistols, bullets, powder,
swords, bayonets, battles, sieges, retreats, attacks, undermines,
countermines, bombardments, sea-fights…

In both of the passages, language is put together in such a way as to avoid being melodious, but instead gives the reader the impression of harsh, clanking sounds that do not naturally flow together. Just like the themes of industrialization or war, the words each author uses effectively jar the reader so that idea and language become intertwined for a purposefully disordered effect.

Many types of music also use this effect to produce a disorderly sound through the mixing of chords that do not logically fit together. Examples can be found in industrial rock as well as in some music from metal bands.

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