Introduction

“Cock-a-doodle-do!”  

Unless you love early mornings on farms, you probably don’t really enjoy hearing that phrase. In fact, the sound of the rooster is often used to wake or jar people using the harsh and jarring sounds. While the case of the rooster may be obvious, other similar sounds are used all the time to create a jarring or uncomfortable effect in the listener.

Example

“When battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by winds of police brutality.” 

This is a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, where he’s trying to set-up the scene about the condition of Black Americans.  That short phrase probably made you feel uneasy, uncomfortable, or at least elicited some type of negative response all on its own. While the content of the phrase might partly be responsible, the actual sounds that words make may also have influenced what you felt. 

Definition / Cacophony 

Cacophony is when you use various words and sounds to create an effect that is unpleasant in the audience. Common ways to do so are to use unpleasant words (scratch, pop, ooze, or hiss) or stop consonants (which are consonants that “explode,” by not having lingering sound (T, P, K, G, B, S, D, etc) to create a mixture of sounds that are unharmonious together. In fact, the word cacophony (which comes from the Greek word that means “bad sound,” is cacophonous itself! 

How It Works

Thus, Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote from above is at least partially provocative because of the sounds in the speech: “When battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by winds of police brutality.” It’s full of hard consonants and words that don’t sound melodic, but in fact, create the mood of uneasiness. Try reading it in a dramatic voice and you’ll see how the sounds make it very easy to do so!

Using It

When you’re writing your own speech or essay, think about how you can use a cacophonous set of words to match the mood you want to convey to your audience. If something is loud, dangerous, or unpleasant, you can use words and phrases that match that tone. Think about political and civic contexts in which (much like Martin Luther King Junior’s speech), you’d want to use cacophony to create a negative feeling in your audience. Perhaps, think about the type of situation in which you might want percussion instruments to provide sound affects your speech!

    Learn More

    1. https://literarydevices.net/cacophony/
    2. https://www.thoughtco.com/a-definition-of-the-literary-term-cacophony-4163600
    3. https://penlighten.com/understanding-literary-term-cacophony-with-examples

    Think Further

    1. Can you find an example of cacophony in a TV show, movie, or book without using the word “cacophony” during your search?
    2. Write your own cacophonous sentence that sounds unpleasant, but with a purpose.
    3. Is it possible to come up with a cacophonous sentence which means something pleasant?

    Teacher Resources

    Download Lesson Plan
    Download Worksheet