What Are Musical Devices in Poetry?

Knowing the six most common types of musical devices in poetry will help you get a better understanding for the techniques used in literature. These devices are considered musical because they use similar sounds to link each other. Learning about these devices will make you a more informed reader of poetry.


Rhyme is a musical device that uses vowel sounds that rhyme through similar construction. To qualify as a rhyme, the vowel sounds and all of the sounds that come after the vowel sounds must be closely related. For instance, the first part of the word can be any consonance, but once the vowel is sounded, the rhyming word must be similar. The words dream and steam both start with different consonants, but end with the same vowels and consonants. There are three types of rhyme used: end rhyme, in which the last words rhyme; internal rhyme, with words inside the line rhyming and approximate rhyme, in which the words don't match but sound similar.


Alliteration constitutes another musical device. It is percussive and uses the consonants at the beginning of a word to rhyme. The only thing that must sound similar are the first letters of each word. For example: stealing stones from the sea is an example of alliteration because of the "s" sound at the beginning of each word.


Consonance is similar to alliteration, but it involves the repetition of the consonance sounds anywhere other than the beginning of the word. This creates a more subtle percussive musical device for the rhyme. The following words are an example of consonance: walk up to the pup. The words up and pup both end in an "up" sound making them qualify as consonance.


People often confuse assonance with rhyme. However, there is a subtle difference. Assonance occurs when the vowel sounds of a word are repeated without continuing to imitate the other sounds that follow them. For example, the words note, broken and coats all have assonance "since-since" the "o" sound repeats.


Onomatopoeia occurs when a word attempts to imitate the sound that it is describing. This technique uses a musical device to create the imagery and sound of the object being imitated. For example, a cat "meows" or a clock "ticks" are examples of onomatopoeia in literature. Words that imitate their actions are also considered onomatopoeia, such as the word "popcorn."


The refrain consists of at least one word or words that repeat regularly in a poem. It could be just one word that is repeated or as many as an entire phrase or line. These refrains usually comes at the end of a stanza. In a song, we would call the refrain a chorus, since it is the part of the song that repeats itself. One poetic example would be the phrase, "Quoth the raven, Nevermore" in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven."


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