An Analysis of “Loud Music” by Stephen Dobyns

February 18, 2024 | by poemread.com

Loud Music by Stephen Dobyns_featured

Loud Music” by Stephen Dobyns is a unique contribution to American literature, which explores universal themes of familial relationships and individual identity. It resonates with readers through its vivid imagery, relatable characters, and a beautiful portrayal of human emotions.

In this analysis, we will dissect the poem’s meaning line-by-line and explore its themes, imagery, and literary techniques.

Loud Music 

"My stepdaughter and I circle round and round.
You see, I like the music loud, the speakers
throbbing, jam-packing the room with sound whether
Bach or rock and roll, the volume cranked up so
each bass note is like a hand smacking the gut.
But my stepdaughter disagrees. She is four
and likes the music decorous, pitched below
her own voice-that tenuous projection of self.
With music blasting, she feels she disappears,
is lost within the blare, which in fact I like.
But at four what she wants is self-location
and uses her voice as a porpoise uses
its sonar: to find herself in all this space.
If she had a sort of box with a peephole
and looked inside, what she'd like to see would be
herself standing there in her red pants, jacket,
yellow plastic lunch box: a proper subject
for serious study. But me, if I raised
the same box to my eye, I would wish to find
the ocean on one of those days when wind
and thick cloud make the water gray and restless
as if some creature brooded underneath,
a rocky coast with a road along the shore
where someone like me was walking and has gone.
Loud music does this, it wipes out the ego,
leaving turbulent water and winding road,
a landscape stripped of people and language-
how clear the air becomes, how sharp the colors."
—Stephen Dobyns


The subject of the poem “Loud Music” by Stephen Dobyns

The poem revolves around the contrasting preferences of the narrator (stepfather), and his four-year-old stepdaughter regarding the volume of music. The poem digs into the dynamics of their relationship, highlighting their different viewpoints and personal preferences.

The “loud music” can be interpreted as a metaphor for the challenges and chaos in life. The volume and intensity of the music represent the overwhelming experiences that individuals face. Thus, the poem explores how individuals should navigate and cope with these challenges, while discovering autonomy amidst the chaos.

The persona, or narrator of the poem

The narrator is the stepfather, who has the primary voice within the story. Therefore, the narrative unfolds in the first person.

His self-analysis and observations offer readers a glimpse into his inner world, revealing his conflicted emotions and underlying desires. His monologue brings about the tension and intimacy of family relationships.

The set of the poem

The set of the poem is the domestic space (home) shared by the stepfather and stepdaughter. Within this intimate setting, Dobyns crafts a vivid imagery, to highlight the true nature of human relationships and family dynamics.

The form and structure of “Loud Music” by Stephen Dobyns

“Loud Music” by Stephen Dobyns is structured in free verse, with no consistent rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Lack of a consistent rhyme scheme mirrors the theme the poem, as described later.

Dobyns utilizes enjambment and varied line lengths throughout the poem, creating a sense of fluidity and spontaneity in the narrative. The absence of strict punctuation contributes to the poem’s conversational tone, allowing the lines to flow seamlessly from one to the next. However, occasional punctuation marks such as commas and dashes are strategically placed to denote pauses or shifts in thought, adding clarity to the text.

Line by line analysis of “Loud Music” by Stephen Dobyns

“My stepdaughter and I circle round and round.”

The opening line of “Loud Music” sets the stage for the beginning of a family conflict. The act of circling round immediately creates a vivid imagery of a dancing like ritual. The repetition of “round and round” creates a sense of cyclical motion. Furthermore, the intentional use of the verb “circle” has its significance: It can be a reflection of the repetitive nature of events, like a ritual, happening every day.

“You see, I like the music loud, the speakers

throbbing, jam-packing the room with sound whether”

In these lines, the speaker expresses his personal preference for loud music, introducing a key theme of the poem. The use of the second-person pronoun “you” engages the reader directly, inviting them to consider and side with the speaker’s perspective. The “speakers” imply loud vibratory music, with a visual as well as auditory imagery of loud vibrating music.

The verbs “throbbing” and “jam-packing” convey a sense of intensity and fullness. Meanwhile, the imagery of the room being filled with sound creates a vivid mental picture for the reader. Further, the use of the word “whether” introduces a sense of flexibility. It serves to indicate that the speaker prefers high volume, regardless of the type or genre being played.

“Bach or rock and roll, the volume cranked up so”

This line continues to explore the stepfather’s diversity in musical tastes and desire for volume. Back was a German music composer, thus implies the side of classical music. This is juxtaposed with the more contemporary genre of rock and roll. The conjunction “or” suggests that he prefers both genres, thus having broad range of musical interests.

However, the phrase “volume cranked up” conveys the deliberate act of increasing the sound intensity. This infers that despite the type of music, he needs the sound cranked up. Additionally, the use of enjambment at the end of the line propels the reader forward, maintaining the poem’s fluid narrative flow.

“each bass note is like a hand smacking the gut.”

Here, Dobyns utilizes a simile to evoke the physical impact of loud music on the listener. The comparison of bass notes to a “hand smacking the gut” conveys an intense physical sensation. Additionally, the use of tactile imagery adds depth to the sensory experience of the poem.

“Smacking” or striking the tummy with a hand is generally an unpleasant feeling. Ironically, there is a sense of pride in this statement, allowing the reader to understand the surprising element in speaker’s attitude towards loudness.

It is later in the poem that we find the use of “Loud music” possibly serves as a metaphor for the chaos and roughness of the real world. In this context, the stepfather referring to loud music as a punch in the belly can be justified. The reason behind his attitude is explained in the latter lines of the poem.

“But my stepdaughter disagrees. She is four”

This line marks first time the central conflict of the poem is introduced to the reader. His stepdaughter’s disagreement sets up a tension between the preferences of the two characters. The juxtaposition of the stepdaughter’s youth with the speaker’s own adult perspective underscores the generational divide between them.

Additionally, the use of the conjunction “but” signals a shift in focus from the speaker’s own preferences to those of his stepdaughter. The mention of the stepdaughter’s age serves to emphasize her vulnerability and innocence, casting her in a sympathetic light.

“and likes the music decorous, pitched below”

Here, the speaker describes the stepdaughter’s preference for quieter, more subdued music. The adjective “decorous” suggests a sense of refinement, contrasting sharply with the stepfather’s tendency for loud music. Additionally, the use of the verb “pitched below” conveys the idea of lowering the volume. The juxtaposition of “decorous” with “loud” music, mentioned previously in the poem, highlights the stepdaughter’s desire for moderation.

In addition, the stepdaughter not exposed to the real world at the age of four, is not accustomed to the chaos or the challenges of the world. Therefore, in a broader aspect, the low pitch signifies the enclosed environment she is in, with lot more to learn.

“her own voice-that tenuous projection of self.”

This line uses enjambment, where sentence flows from the previous line without a pause or break. As such, she likes moderate music, “pitched below her own voice”. This emphasizes the low volume, low pitched voice she possesses.

Next, the speaker personifies her voice as a “tenuous projection of self.” This term “tenuous” implies the fragile and weak nature, highlighting her vulnerability in the eyes of her stepfather. Furthermore, he is pointing out her voice as a way of expressing her identity.

This characterization serves to underscore the importance of voice as a means of self-expression, particularly in the presence of loud music. Additionally, the phrase “projection of self” suggests that voice serves as a reflection of her innermost thoughts and desires.

“With music blasting, she feels she disappears,”

The verb “blasting” conveys a sense of forcefulness, highlighting the overpowering nature of the music. In addition, it employs an imagery of a blast, where everything disappears. The stepdaughter’s feeling of disappearing within the blare serves as a metaphor for her struggle to express herself amidst this loudness. Just as it is physically difficult to override the loudness of music with her low-pitched voice, this is a metaphor of how her autonomy is suppressed in this setting.

“is lost within the blare, which in fact I like.”

This line captures the speaker’s ambivalent attitude towards the stepdaughter’s discomfort with loud music. The juxtaposition of the stepdaughter’s sense of loss with the speaker’s own enjoyment of the blare highlights the divide between them.

The phrase “which in fact I like” suggests a sense of indifference or disregard for the stepdaughter’s perspective, underscoring the power dynamic within their relationship. Additionally, the use of the phrase “in fact” implies a contrast between appearance and reality, hinting at the complexity of the speaker’s emotions.

Thus, the line draws empathy of the reader towards the fragility of the four-year-old, with mixed feelings towards the speaker. However, the irony behind this statement lies in the fact that the stepfather wants her daughter to learn from the experiences. Being lost or damaged by the chaos in life is brought forward as a good thing, where children learn to build up their autonomy or “voice”.

“But at four what she wants is self-location”

This statement refers to speaker’s core impression that his stepdaughter needs to understand and establish her own place within her surroundings. At the age of four, the stepdaughter is in the early stages of developing her autonomy and self-awareness. This line underscores the universal human quest for identity and belonging, particularly during formative stages of development.

“and uses her voice as a porpoise uses
its sonar: to find herself in all this space.”

This line employs a simile to compare the stepdaughter’s use of her voice to a porpoise’s (dolphin like animal) sonar. The phrase “in all this space” underscores how overwhelming this environment is for her to establish her identity.

This comparison highlights that the stepdaughter has an instinct to establish her place using her voice, just as a dolphin uses sonic waves to locate itself. The imagery of sonar evokes a sense of self-awareness amidst the confusion of external stimuli. It points out that every child has got a natural tendency to build up their autonomy as they grow up.

"Loud Music" by Stephen Dobyns portrays a stepfather and his young stepdaughter's differing tastes in music, revealing their struggle for self-discovery.

“If she had a sort of box with a peephole”

The speaker introduces a hypothetical scenario in which the stepdaughter looks into a box through its hole. This box serves as a metaphor for her surrounding, in broader terms, her own life. The imagery of a “box with a peephole” suggests a sense of confinement or limitation.

“and looked inside, what she’d like to see would be”

The speaker continues to explore the stepdaughter’s hypothetical scenario, speculating on what she might wish to find within the confines of her imaginary box. The terms “she’d” and “would be” emphasizes the external judgement and its uncertainty.

“herself standing there in her red pants, jacket,
yellow plastic lunch box: a proper subject”

Here, the speaker describes the stepdaughter’s self-imagination within the hypothetical box. The imagery of “red pants” and “jacket” adds a visual dimension to the stepdaughter’s image. Visualizing these external appearances describes how she perceives herself. External appearance is usually one of the first things an outsider uses to judge oneself. Seeing herself linked to these physical aspects is superficial and makes her more fragile.

Furthermore, her “yellow plastic lunch box” serves as a symbol of childhood innocence and familiarity, reflecting the desires of her own world. Moreover, the box made out of “plastic” further highlights the impermanence or the fragility of the imagination.

Additionally, the phrase “a proper subject”, is enjambed in the following line “for a serious study”. Here, the speaker refers to the stepdaughter’s imagined self-image as worthy of “serious study.” This is an invitation for the reader to study deep on how children perceive the world. The hidden idea is, despite the innocence and simplicity in “red pants” and “yellow lunch box”, the speaker finds these aspects of her self-image questionable and wants her to change.

“for serious study. But me, if I raised
the same box to my eye, I would wish to find”

Here, the speaker shifts focus from the stepdaughter’s perspective to his own, introducing a contrast with the use of “but”. In these lines, the speaker continues to reflect on the hypothetical scenario introduced in the previous stanza, this time on what he might find inside the box.

The use of the phrase “the same box” establishes a parallel between the stepdaughter’s imagined self-image and the speaker’s own desires. This highlights the connection between the two characters, suggesting that both of them share the same environment but different autonomies.

“the ocean on one of those days when wind”
“and thick cloud make the water gray and restless”
“as if some creature brooded underneath,”

In these lines, linked by enjambment, the speaker describes his self-image within the hypothetical box. He is focusing on a rough and restless ocean on a windy day. The imagery of the “ocean” and “wind” conveys a sense of vastness, reflecting the speaker’s desire for freedom and exploration.

Furthermore, the imagery of “thick cloud” and “gray and restless water” adds a visual dimension to the speaker’s self-conception, highlighting the dynamics of nature. The speaker uses simile to describe the roughness of ocean “as if” an ominous creature is lurking beneath its surface. Thus, this image is evoking a sense of foreboding or unease, hinting at the unknown depths of the speaker’s subconscious mind.

In contrast to the girl’s imagination, this setting can be seen by the reader as more realistic and mature. The speaker being unbothered by loud music is no more surprising.

“a rocky coast with a road along the shore”
“where someone like me was walking and has gone.”

Here, the speaker further describes the imagined landscape surrounding the ocean. The imagery of “rocky coast” and “road along the shore” adds a visual dimension, highlighting the rugged beauty of the natural environment.

Additionally, the imagery of walking alone in such a road brings about a sense of solitude. The phrase “where someone like me was walking and has gone” suggests the transient nature of human existence. This image, compared to the little girl’s imagination of “red pants” and “yellow lunch box” is brought forward as rustic, and more mature experience. The term “was walking and has gone” possibly implies that the stepfather had faced difficulties in life, which had shaped him to be unbothered by the chaos in life.

“Loud music does this, it wipes out the ego,”

The hypothetical box is reversed back to the “loud music”, with a question left to the reader to ponder on. Parallel to this, the speaker manages to stress on the transformative power of loud music. The loud music being a metaphor for difficulties and challenges in life, has the power to erase out the ego.

This line reflects on the theme of the transcendent power of chaos to alter one’s state of mind and consciousness.

“leaving turbulent water and winding road,”
“a landscape stripped of people and language-“

The speaker describes the aftermath or the effects of loud music. The imagery of “turbulent water” and “winding road” without people in it indicates solitude and peace despite the chaotic environment. In addition, the absence of “language” implies loss of communication. Overall, the lines convey a sense of isolation and emptiness, highlighting the speaker’s sense of detachment from the external world.

“how clear the air becomes, how sharp the colors.”

Finally, in the concluding line of “Loud Music,” the speaker reflects on the heightened sensory perception that accompanies the dissolution of the ego. The phrase “how clear the air becomes, how sharp the colors” conveys a sense of superior awareness and clarity. Despite the chaos in loud music, the stepfather sees life more clearly and sharply. Moreover, the sense of clarity implies embracing the life’s challenges (liking loud music) is ultimately bringing people closer to solace and peace in mind, no matter the genre.

Therefore, the poem concludes with an invitation to the reader to reflect on the transformative power of self-discovery despite the confusion or “loudness” of everyday life.

Here is a helpful commentary for further information. Individual Oral Commentary – Loud Music by Stephen Dobyns (Danny & Steph) (youtube.com)

Q and A

What is the theme of “Loud Music” by Stephen Dobyns?

Identity and Autonomy

The main theme of the poem is building autonomy amidst the life’s challenges. The poem recurrently emphasizes on the stepfather’s urge to build up the autonomy and self-awareness of his stepdaughter. The speaker highlights on the necessity of a “voice” to face the chaos and challenges in life and how it should be shaped up from the early stages of life.

Describe the tone or the mood of “Loud Music” by Stephen Dobyns?

The tone of “Loud Music” by Stephen Dobyns is contemplative and introspective. There is also underlying notes of tension, as the characters navigate their conflicting preferences and desires. Additionally, the imagery of solitude and isolation adds a layer of melancholy to the poem.

What are the literary devices used in “Loud Music” by Stephen Dobyns?

Imagery: Dobyns utilizes vivid imagery throughout the poem to evoke sensory experiences and create mental pictures. Examples include “each bass note is like a hand smacking the gut” and “a rocky coast with a road along the shore,” which enrich the reader’s understanding of the narrative.

Metaphor: The poem itself is a metaphor with “loud music” referring to the chaos of life. Other than that, many metaphors had been used throughout the poem.

Symbolism: Dobyns employs symbolism to convey deeper layers of meaning within the text. For example, the turbulent water symbolizes the harshness on life’s challenges.

Personification: The poet personifies abstract concepts such as ego and music, imbuing them with human-like qualities and agency.

Repetition: Dobyns strategically employs repetition of certain phrases and images throughout the poem to reinforce key themes and motifs. For example, the repeated references to circling round and round and the recurring imagery of water and coastline emphasizes the key themes.

Alliteration: The poem features instances of alliteration, or the repetition of consonant sounds, which add a musical quality to the text and enhance its rhythmic flow. Examples include the “w” sound of “turbulent water and winding road,” which contribute to the poem’s lyrical resonance.

"Loud Music" by Stephen Dobyns portrays a stepfather and his young stepdaughter's differing tastes in music, revealing their struggle for self-discovery.

More about the author

Stephen Dobyns is a highly acclaimed American poet and a novelist, who had a keen insight into the complexities of everyday life. He was born on February 19, 1941, in Orange, New Jersey.

Throughout his career, Dobyns gained widespread recognition for his distinctive voice, vivid imagery, and thought-provoking themes. He had the ability to tactfully capture the nature of human experience with honesty, depth, and compassion. His themes often delved into the intricacies of relationships, identity, and the passage of time.

In addition to his poetry, Dobyns showed skillful storytelling in novels such as “The Church of Dead Girls” and “Boy in the Water,” where he explores themes of mystery, suspense, and moral ambiguity.

Throughout his prolific career, Dobyns has received numerous awards and accolades, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has also served as a professor of English at various universities, including Sarah Lawrence College and Boston University, where he has inspired countless students with his passion for literature and writing.


In conclusion, “Loud Music” by Stephen Dobyns conveys a range of emotions, including tension, introspection, and a sense of longing. Dobyns’ intention appears to be to explore the complexities of familial relationships and the quest for self-discovery amidst external pressures. The poem may resonate with readers who have experienced similar conflicts or who have contemplated the impact of external stimuli on their sense of self.

To read more of our poems on life, please visit Life – PoemRead


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