Writing

Poetry 101: What Is Dissonance in Poetry? Dissonance Definition with Examples

Written by MasterClass

May 1, 2019 • 5 min read

The human brain instinctively looks for harmony. When it is denied harmony, it can create a powerful moment—whether that’s for the purposes of creating tension, capturing inner turmoil, or bringing a bit of levity.

Why would a writer deliberately want to make their work sound unpleasant? They might be using the literary device of dissonance, which injects discomfort into text through inharmonious sounds and uneven rhythms.

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What Is Dissonance?

Dissonance means a lack of harmony or agreement between things. In poetry, dissonance refers to a disruption in the harmonic sounds or rhythm of a verse. It is a deliberate awkwardness inserted into the work for disturbing effect.

There are three ways to create dissonance in writing:

  1. Layout of sounds. Using vowel sounds that clash together.
  2. Irregular rhythm. Disrupting the flow of a poem by changing the rhyme scheme.
  3. Using harsh-sounding words. Incorporating unusual or harsh-sounding words.

Dissonance comes from the Latin word “dissonantem,” meaning “differ in sound.” The current definition of dissonance has been in use in the English language since the 1590s.

How Is Dissonance Used in Poetry?

Dissonance makes reading, whether aloud or in your head, uncomfortable—and sometimes, that is a feeling that matches a poem perfectly. When the subject of a poem is enhanced by a sense of abruptness, surprise or unease, dissonance might be the tool to use.

Another reason to use dissonance is if the poem’s speaker is in inner turmoil. A discordant combination of sounds can help to capture something of their distress and fractured thought patterns.

Sometimes, dissonance can have a lighter purpose: it can inject humor. Think about coming to the end of a line of verse where you expected a rhyme and instead your expectation was subverted.

What Does Dissonance Sounds Like In the Real World?

To get a sense of what dissonance sounds like in poetry, it can help to think about what it sounds like in the day-to-day. A baby crying, a person screaming and an alarm going off are all common examples of dissonance. These sounds are annoying, disruptive or put a listener on edge.

Another useful reference is music, where dissonance is also a key concept. Think about the instinctual discomfort you feel when a musician hits a wrong note, the chords that play in a thriller movie soundtrack as the suspense builds, or the challenging compositions in jazz and avant-garde styles.

The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

Where does this seemingly innate feeling of unease come from? In psychology, there is a whole theory of cognitive dissonance that doesn’t directly relate to poetry but can still be instructive to consider. Social psychology researcher Leon Festinger pioneered this area with his 1957 book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. The theory says that humans strive for internal psychological consistency—we want our beliefs to accord with our actions. When we sense there is dissonance, we strive to resolve it and reduce the attendant feeling of discomfort, often by ignoring conflicting information or trying to justify our behavior.

This instinct among humans to seek resolution and harmony is a part of cognitive dissonance theory worth thinking about when it comes to literature, too.

What's the Difference Between Dissonance, Assonance, and Euphony?

Dissonance is often used alongside other literary devices. It can be effective to establish harmony through the likes of assonance and euphony so that it is more noticeable when you break that melodious pattern.

  • Dissonance is the opposite of assonance, which refers to the repetition of vowel sounds in a line of text. Because dissonance often comes from avoiding repetition of sounds, especially vowels, there is a clear link. However, dissonance is a broader term, since it can also be created through the choice of rhythm and words.
  • Euphony is another antonym. This is the quality of harmony, or being pleasing to the ear. The term cacophony is often considered the opposite of euphony. Cacophony has some similarities to dissonance, but it refers specifically to the unpleasantness that is sharp or unmelodious, and primarily created by plosive consonant sounds like “p,” “k,” “t,” “b,” and “g.” As opposed to the scream or alarm, think of the cackle of many birds at dawn or the competing calls of hawkers at a market.

Examples of Dissonance in Poetry

Dissonance in poetry can be hard to spot because instead of looking for the presence of something, you’re looking for an absence—the absence of harmony. Sometimes opinions on what is dissonant will differ, but below are some common examples.

William Shakespeare, Macbeth
In these lines, Macbeth is in desperation and threatening his enemy, Macduff. The dissonant sounds are stark—almost every vowel sound is different:

Of all men else I have avoided thee.
But get thee back. My soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Carrion Comfort”
Despite instances of rhyme and assonance, this poem is uncomfortable to read. The variable unstressed syllables help create that effect:

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, cheer.

Ted Hughes, “Wind”
In this poem, Hughes uses dissonance to describe a storm:

At noon I scale along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up—
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,
The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap

John Updike, “Player Piano”
This poem contains examples of consonance—the repeated “ck” sounds, for instance. And yet, the overall effect is dissonant—some might even say cacophonous—due to the presence of so many rivaling plosive sounds in close succession:

My stick fingers click with a snicker
And, chuckling, they knuckle the keys;
Light footed, my steel feelers flicker
And pluck to these keys melodies.

Gertrude Stein, “Susie Asado”
Disharmony isn’t always about anger, madness, and tension; as this extract below shows, the use of dissonance sometimes brings lightness and exuberance.

A pot. A pot is a beginning of a rare bit of trees. Trees tremble, the old vats are in bobbles, bobbles which shade and shove and render clean, render clean must.
Drink pups.
Drink pups drink pups lease a sash hold, see it shine and a bobolink has pins. It shows a nail.
What is a nail. A nail is unison.
Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.