Cacophony, being a term that is the most prevalently used when talking about music and sounds in general, refers to the combination of unpleasant, jarring, loud, or harsh sounds. However, it may also imply a mix of smells or, for instance, colors. While cacophony is the dissonance in music, it has a similar meaning as a literary technique.
As a rhetorical tool, cacophony involves the usage of various dissonant and unharmonious sounds in one sentence or even in a whole passage. For instance, the author may decide to insert a certain number of words containing such sounds as ‘ch’ and ‘sh’, other hissing sounds, or explosive consonants like t, d, k, p, etc. In general, cacophony in literary works signifies an explosive delivery of the narration.
The term derives from the Greek word “kakophōnos”, which is structured by two parts: “kakos” meaning “bad” and “phōnē”, which has the meaning of “sound” or “voice”. Therefore, the general translation of the original word “kakophōnos” is “ill-sounding”. It dates back to the middle of the 17th century (around 1655). Later, the term was put into use in the French language first, and later in English.
As a part of the group of rhetorical techniques, cacophony belongs to the same subtype of sound patterns as euphony. The latter is characterized by employing the sounds in a more harmonious way in order to achieve the effect that is opposite to cacophony. Euphony serves to represent the pleasing and oftentimes beautiful scenarios and settings. This rhetorical tool involves employing harmonically sounding words with an organic vowel placement and the soft sounds like l, n, m, w, etc.
Among the tools that are oftentimes implemented in literary works, there is one that may be confused with cacophony because of its peculiarities. It is onomatopoeia. It may possess the qualities of cacophony because of the way this linguistic tool is implemented: by presenting the sounds in the form of the words they signify. For instance, the words ‘bang’ or ‘pow’ may be employed in a literary piece in order to set the scene. And because onomatopoeic words oftentimes sound harsh, they may be perceived as cacophonies, which may not always be right. For instance, even though the words like ‘slush’ or ‘slip’ are onomatopoeic, they don’t implement the harsh cacophonic sounds and belong more to the euphonic group.
There are numerous reasons why authors implement cacophony in their works. Despite this tool’s harshness, it oftentimes serves to create and to set the rhythm of the narration, especially in poetry. It may help the author establish a certain tone of the text or even add the musicality of some level to the writing.
This linguistic tool may also be employed in order to evoke certain feelings in the reader or to express those feelings through the narration. Cacophonic sounds oftentimes represent frustration, disgust, despair, and other feelings the author is implying.
Cacophony may also serve to represent a specific situation in the narration, like a distressing battle or a conflict. In other words, this linguistic tool works with emotions and either depicts them or evokes them in the reader. The author might use the cacophonic words in a descriptive part of a narration or in a dialogue, which oftentimes helps to present the emotional state of the involved characters.
Cacophony, being a rather versatile tool, allows for a rather creative and unrestricted use. Therefore, many authors (especially poets) employ this technique to experiment with the flow of the narration and to explore and test the limits of the language they are using.
Cacophonic words oftentimes serve simply to attract the reader’s attention while indicating unpleasant noises. This is the most basic and obvious way to employ this linguistic device: to mimic the actual sounds and interest the reader with their loudness, energy, noisiness, etc.
Cacophonic words may be spotted in numerous literary works. For instance, Shakespeare, being one of the most masterful authors that enjoyed exploring the limits of the language, employs cacophony in one of his plays called “Macbeth”. Introducing the words and phrases like “damned spot”, “out I say”, “fie, my lord, fie”, etc., the author illustrates the inner state of one of the characters, Lady Macbeth. By employing such short and somewhat explosive cacophonic words, Shakespeare highlights the distress of the heroine and allows the reader to observe her descending into madness.
Another example of cacophony may be found in the prose work by Cormac McCarthy called “The Road”. In order to represent the distressing atmosphere and the intensity of the narration, the author employs such unpleasant cacophonic phrases like “screams of the murdered”, “deranged chanting”, “the dead on spikes”, etc. Such a choice of words creates a dissonance, allowing the author to illustrate the scene in detail. Moreover, the cacophonic words here serve to evoke certain emotions in the reader.
In the poem “The Bells”, the author (Edgar Allen Poe) implements both euphony and cacophony in order to gradually present the descent into the terror. The author starts with the words like “loud alarum bells”, which are a clear example of euphony, and finishes with cacophonies like “shriek”, “scream”, etc. to illustrate the setting and, again, to appeal to the reader’s emotions.