Sound Devices Definition
A sound device (SOWNduh dee-VISE) is a literary tool employed in verse plays, poetry, and prose to emphasize various sounds. Sound devices allow writers to amplify certain sonic elements through the repetition of chosen vowel or consonant sounds, units of rhythm, or by mimicking sounds that occur naturally in the world outside of the text. Writers frequently utilize multiple different types of sound device within the same literary work.
Types of Sound Devices
There are many types of sound devices, but a few of the most common are assonance, cacophony, consonance, euphony, and sibilance.
This occurs when two or more words repeat the same vowel sound but begin with different consonant sounds. This term is most precisely used when the repetition of vowel sounds occurs in stressed syllables, but the definition has broadened, so if the repetition occurs in unstressed vowel sounds, it is still considered assonance. Either way, the repetition of these sounds must occur close together to qualify.
Assonance has a pleasing lulling quality to it and adds to readers’ enjoyment of a work of literature. The phrase “tilting at windmills” shows assonance with the repetition of the letter i. The sentence “The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain” also shows assonance with its repetition of ai.
Assonance is common in music lyrics, particularly in hip hop. For example, rapper Big Pun uses assonance in his song “Twinz” when he raps “Dead in the middle of Little Italy little did we know that we riddled some middleman who didn’t do diddly.”
This term refers to the use of words with unmelodious sounds, particularly those with sharp, harsh, or hissing qualities. It is created primarily by using discordant consonants (such as p, b, d, g, k, ch-, sh-, etc.), particularly in combinations that require an explosive delivery.
Cacophony creates a harsh, jarring effect that can add to the narrative tension of a piece of literature, amplify distressing emotions endured by the characters, or even evoke stress and anxiety in the reader to heighten the mood.
This sound device can be observed in the real world, such as the din of a noisy street or crowded market or the sounds of an orchestra or band tuning their instruments before a concert. The word also refers to the sound made by crows or other corvids, as in the phrase “a cacophony of crows.”
The repetition of consonant sounds in quick succession is called consonance. These consonant sounds can occur anywhere in the word.
Many common phrases contain consonance. For example, the tongue twister “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” contains consonance with its repeated p sounds. The phrase “curiosity killed the cat” also contains consonance as it repeats c/k sounds.
Think of consonance as the complementary partner of assonance. Consonance is created through the repetition of consonant sounds, while assonance occurs when vowel sounds are repeated. An easy way to differentiate between these two terms is to remember that the word consonance almost contains the word consonant, while the word assonance begins with a vowel.
This sound device uses the repetition of long vowels, semi-vowels, and harmonious or soft consonants to create a pleasing melody.
Euphony can be employed to calm and soothe readers, as well as amplify a pleasant and peaceful tone within a work. It also can serve as a mnemonic device because euphony’s melodious qualities make works that utilize it easy for readers to memorize. The compound noun cellar door is often cited as the most beautiful term in the English language because of its euphony.
Euphony is the opposite of cacophony. Cacophony uses explosive consonants to create a jarring and unsettling effect, while euphony lulls and calms readers with long vowels, semi-vowels, harmonious consonants (L, m, n, r), and soft consonants (th, wh, soft f, soft v).
A specialized kind of consonance is sibilance. It occurs when consonant sounds are repeated but only when those sounds are sibilant consonants, such as s, sh, and z. Sibilant means “makes or sounded with a hissing sound.”
A famous example of sibilance is the tongue twister “She sells seashells by the seashore.” This sentence contains both sibilance, with its use of s and sh consonants, and euphony, with the repeated Ls.
Additional Sound Devices
Related sound devices that writers often employ as well are alliteration, meter, and onomatopoeia.
- Alliteration is a type of consonance where the repetition of consonant sounds occurs only in the stressed part of the word.
- Meter refers to the patterned arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables within a line of poetry or a verse play.
- Onomatopoeia is a sound device created when a word imitates or evokes the sound it refers to—for instance, words like hiss, clang, buzz, growl, boom, drip, and splash.
Why Writers Use Sound Devices
Sound devices create musical effects and heighten artistic and thematic elements of writers’ works. The use of sound devices ensures that the text is pleasing and musically varied, which keeps the reader engaged.
Different sound devices can be used to heighten emotions in the work, amplify tone, or create or break tension. They can also guide readers towards a deeper understanding of the work.
Examples of Sound Devices in Literature
1. Edgar Allan Poe, “Annabel Lee”
In the last verse of Poe’s well-known poem about a dead love, the narrator says:
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride.
The repetition of the i in this couplet is a lovely example of assonance, which adds to the melancholy beauty of the poem.
2. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Perhaps literature’s most famous example of cacophony can be found in Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky,” which he included in Through the Looking Glass, his sequel to Alice in Wonderland. In an early scene in this novel, Alice finds a book written in mirror-language containing this poem, which begins:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Carroll invented many of these words, which contain harsh and dissonant sounds, with the intent to jar and confuse his readers. The nonsense words are amplified by the use of cacophony to create an unsettling, awkward sensation in the ear.
3. John Keats, “To Autumn”
This ode by Keats makes use of multiple sound devices, including euphony, meter, and sibilance. The first stanza of the poem opens with Keats describing the season:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
The meter of this poem stays within a precise iambic pentameter, which lends a calming rhythm to the work. Keats also employs sibilance by repeating hissing s sounds in swell, shells, still, cells, etc. He also utilizes euphony with long vowel sounds in words like mellow, ripeness, and load. Overall, the sibilance, euphony, and meter of the poem, combined with Keats’s use of an ABAB and CDEDCCE rhyme scheme, gives the reader a melodic, calming experience.
Further Resources on Sound Devices
Poet Mary Oliver wrote an excellent guide to understanding and writing poetry: A Poetry Handbook. There are two excellent chapters that cover various sound devices.
The California Federation of Chaparral Poets has a useful guide that explores various sound devices.
The New York Times published an interesting exploration of the role that sibilance in pronunciation plays in dental treatments.