What Is Cacophony?

In everyday speech, cacophony is a hodgepodge of different sounds, all occurring simultaneously. Two toddlers playing in the drawer of pots and pans would produce a cacophony, as would the noise outside a hotel room on a busy street in Rome or Shanghai.

Because we gravitate toward harmonious sounds, preferring the rhythmic sound of waves over those of a baby crying, a cacophony is upsetting. We cannot neither ignore nor relax into cacophonous sounds. As many studies have shown, they affect us on a primal level, and that is what makes them powerful.

How Do You Identify Cacophony in Writing?

As a literary device, cacophony is the juxtaposition of two or more like-sounding consonants together, a combination that is jarring and unpleasant. For instance, “the fresh-caught carp sizzled on the grill.” Unlike many instances of alliteration, this sounds clunky, especially when compared to a more melodious substitution: “The fresh-caught fish sizzled on the grill.”

The “clunkiness” has not to do not so much with the repetition of the consonant sound as with the fact that you are forced to stress two beats in a row because of the repeated consonant sound. This goes against one’s natural sense of rhythm, creating a cacophony.

The purpose of cacophony is to let the unharmonious language mirror an upsetting or unpleasant setting, feeling, or circumstance.

Examples of Cacophony

Cacophony Example 1. “Ghastly Vatican,” writes Sylvia Plath in her poem, “Medusa,” “I am sick to death of hot salt.” Here the repeated “t” sounds are cacophonous, mirroring the narrator’s contempt and rage.

Cacophony Example 2. Again, here is Sylvia Plath, from “The Colossus.”: “Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles/Proceed from your great lips.” It is impossible to impose a metrical feet on the first line, forcing the reader to slow down and stress each angry syllable.

Cacophony Example 3. “With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,/Agape they heard me call.” These lines from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” call attention to the stark desert condition of a windless ship at sea.

Cacophony Example 4. “She sells seashells down by the seashore.” Tongue twisters are good examples of cacophony. Again, the repeating sounds undermine the metrics of the line, which is one of the things that bogs readers down.

Cacophony Example 5. “And squared and stuck there squares of soft white chalk,/And, with a fish‐tooth, scratched a moon on each,” writes Robert Browning in “Caliban upon Setebos.” Notice how the repetition of square in the first line creates cacophony.

(View all literary devices)