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Cacophony is usually used to describe a mixture of sounds that is not pleasing to the ear; therefore, it generally has a negative connotation. Within certain genres or traditions of music, though, such as experimental, modern, and metal music, cacophony may be intentionally produced in order to create the specific aesthetic effect associated with the harshness and dissonance itself.  

What is cacophony?

A cacophony is a mixture of harsh sounds or a sound pattern in words or phrases that is discordant. The word is derived from the Greek words for “bad” (kakos) and “sound” (phone), and dates from mid-17th century France. The French word for cacophony is cacophonie.The sound is generally displeasing and unharmonious to the ear. Din, racket, noise, clamor, discord, dissonance, uproar, disharmony, jarring, jangle, racket, tumult, harshness, pandemonium and noise are all synonyms of cacophony. In literature, cacophony is the use of words with sharp, harsh, hissing, and unmelodious sounds. These are usually consonant sounds.

Examples of use

“Cacophony” is the mish-mash of sounds that assails the ears outside a residence; especially in a city. The sounds of a city street (horns honking, people talking, truck engines, dogs barking, etc.) create a cacophony in the human ear. 

Another example of cacophony is the sound of members of a marching band or orchestra tuning their instruments and trying them out before a practice or a performance begins.

Cacophony is a literary term, as well, and a good example is the use of similar sounding sharp words together. The sound is more dissonant if the words start with a harsh consonant, such as “s”. Consider the following sentence: “I hate snakes since they slither stinky and sneak up on me.” The hissing sounds of the negatively-associated words starting with “s” and the incongruence of “stinky” resist the natural flow of the language. The resulting sound on the ear is a cacophony.

Literary uses of cacophony

Writers often make use of cacophony to describe the discordancy of an event, situation, or environment. The use of unpleasant words and arrangements of those words allows the reader to experience the discordant situation with the writer.

Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” a poem from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There is an excellent use of cacophony in the literary world. The poem uses many nonsense words simply for their anarchic sound in the human ear. The poem is best experienced when read aloud, as the dissonance and harsh sounds of the consonants and unique words can only be interpreted correctly in this manner.

Here is an example: “The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!/ He left it dead, and with its head/ He went galumphing back”. The hard “ck,” the “p” in “vorpal” and the rhyming word “back” all create a cacophony in the ear of the reader, which is more pronounced as the Jabberwocky is slain by the hero of the poem. The words used are purposefully unmelodious, and do not flow or show any pattern that is distinguishable.

Cacophony in literature and poetry or prose is often used to express disorder, chaos, or confusion. Jarring is a good way to describe war poetry, which often uses cacophony in order to convey the madness of a battlefield or a foreign environment. For example, G.K. Chesterton uses cacophony in these lines from “For a War Memorial”: /The hucksters haggle in the mart/ The cars and carts go by; / Senates and schools go droning on: /For dead things cannot die.

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