Sound can be used as a familiar illustration of waves. Because hearing is one of our most important senses, it is interesting to see how the physical properties of sound correspond to our perceptions of it. Hearing is the perception of sound, just as vision is the perception of visible light. But sound has important applications beyond hearing. Ultrasound, for example, is not heard but can be employed to form medical images and is also used in treatment.


The physical phenomenon of sound is defined to be a disturbance of matter that is transmitted from its source outward. Sound is a wave. On the atomic scale, it is a disturbance of atoms that is far more ordered than their thermal motions. In many instances, sound is a periodic wave, and the atoms undergo simple harmonic motion. In this text, we shall explore such periodic sound waves.

When a firework explodes, the light energy is perceived before the sound energy. Sound travels more slowly than light does. (credit: Dominic Alves, Flickr)


A vibrating string produces a sound wave as illustrated in the following figures. As the string oscillates back and forth, it transfers energy to the air, mostly as thermal energy created by turbulence. But a small part of the string’s energy goes into compressing and expanding the surrounding air, creating slightly higher and lower local pressures. These compressions (high pressure regions) and rarefactions (low pressure regions) move out as longitudinal pressure waves having the same frequency as the string—they are the disturbance that is a sound wave. (Sound waves in air and most fluids are longitudinal, because fluids have almost no shear strength. In solids, sound waves can be both transverse and longitudinal.) The last figure shows a graph of gauge pressure versus distance from the vibrating string.

A vibrating string moving to the right compresses the air in front of it and expands the air behind it.

As the string moves to the left, it creates another compression and rarefaction as the ones on the right move away from the string.

After many vibrations, there are a series of compressions and rarefactions moving out from the string as a sound wave. The graph shows gauge pressure versus distance from the source. Pressures vary only slightly from atmospheric for ordinary sounds.


The amplitude of a sound wave decreases with distance from its source, because the energy of the wave is spread over a larger and larger area. But it is also absorbed by objects, such as the eardrum, and converted to thermal energy by the viscosity of air. In addition, during each compression a little heat transfers to the air and during each rarefaction even less heat transfers from the air, so that the heat transfer reduces the organized disturbance into random thermal motions. (These processes can be viewed as a manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics presented in Introduction to the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Heat Engines and Their Efficiency.) Whether the heat transfer from compression to rarefaction is significant depends on how far apart they are—that is, it depends on wavelength. Wavelength, frequency, amplitude, and speed of propagation are important for sound, as they are for all waves.

Sound wave compressions and rarefactions travel up the ear canal and force the eardrum to vibrate. There is a net force on the eardrum, since the sound wave pressures differ from the atmospheric pressure found behind the eardrum. A complicated mechanism converts the vibrations to nerve impulses, which are perceived by the person.

Speed of Sound, Frequency, and Wavelength

When a firework explodes, the light energy is perceived before the sound energy. Sound travels more slowly than light does. (credit: Dominic Alves, Flickr)

Sound, like all waves, travels at a certain speed and has the properties of frequency and wavelength. You can observe direct evidence of the speed of sound while watching a fireworks display. The flash of an explosion is seen well before its sound is heard, implying both that sound travels at a finite speed and that it is much slower than light. You can also directly sense the frequency of a sound. Perception of frequency is called pitch. The wavelength of sound is not directly sensed, but indirect evidence is found in the correlation of the size of musical instruments with their pitch. Small instruments, such as a piccolo, typically make high-pitch sounds, while large instruments, such as a tuba, typically make low-pitch sounds. High pitch means small wavelength, and the size of a musical instrument is directly related to the wavelengths of sound it produces. So a small instrument creates short-wavelength sounds. Similar arguments hold that a large instrument creates long-wavelength sounds.

The relationship of the speed of sound, its frequency, and wavelength is the same as for all waves:

vw = fλ,

 

where vw is the speed of sound, f is its frequency, and λ is its wavelength. The wavelength of a sound is the distance between adjacent identical parts of a wave—for example, between adjacent compressions as illustrated in the figure below. The frequency is the same as that of the source and is the number of waves that pass a point per unit time.

A sound wave emanates from a source vibrating at a frequency f , propagates at vw , and has a wavelength λ .

Speed of Sound in Various Media

This table makes it apparent that the speed of sound varies greatly in different media. The speed of sound in a medium is determined by a combination of the medium’s rigidity (or compressibility in gases) and its density. The more rigid (or less compressible) the medium, the faster the speed of sound. This observation is analogous to the fact that the frequency of a simple harmonic motion is directly proportional to the stiffness of the oscillating object. The greater the density of a medium, the slower the speed of sound. This observation is analogous to the fact that the frequency of a simple harmonic motion is inversely proportional to the mass of the oscillating object. The speed of sound in air is low, because air is compressible. Because liquids and solids are relatively rigid and very difficult to compress, the speed of sound in such media is generally greater than in gases.

Earthquakes, essentially sound waves in Earth’s crust, are an interesting example of how the speed of sound depends on the rigidity of the medium. Earthquakes have both longitudinal and transverse components, and these travel at different speeds. The bulk modulus of granite is greater than its shear modulus. For that reason, the speed of longitudinal or pressure waves (Pwaves) in earthquakes in granite is significantly higher than the speed of transverse or shear waves (S-waves). Both components of earthquakes travel slower in less rigid material, such as sediments. P-waves have speeds of 4 to 7 km/s, and S-waves correspondingly range in speed from 2 to 5 km/s, both being faster in more rigid material. The P-wave gets progressively farther ahead of the S-wave as they travel through Earth’s crust. The time between the P- and S-waves is routinely used to determine the distance to their source, the epicenter of the earthquake.

The speed of sound is affected by temperature in a given medium. For air at sea level, the speed of sound is given by


where the temperature (denoted as T ) is in units of kelvin. The speed of sound in gases is related to the average speed of particles in the gas, vrms, and that 


where k is the Boltzmann constant ( 1.38×10−23 J/K ) and m is the mass of each (identical) particle in the gas. So, it is reasonable that the speed of sound in air and other gases should depend on the square root of temperature. While not negligible, this is not a strong dependence. At 0ºC , the speed of sound is 331 m/s, whereas at 20.0ºC it is 343 m/s, less than a 4% increase. The figure below shows a use of the speed of sound by a bat to sense distances. Echoes are also used in medical imaging.

A bat uses sound echoes to find its way about and to catch prey. The time for the echo to return is directly proportional to the distance.

One of the more important properties of sound is that its speed is nearly independent of frequency. This independence is certainly true in open air for sounds in the audible range of 20 to 20,000 Hz. If this independence were not true, you would certainly notice it for music played by a marching band in a football stadium, for example. Suppose that high-frequency sounds traveled faster—then the farther you were from the band, the more the sound from the low-pitch instruments would lag that from the high-pitch ones. But the music from all instruments arrives in cadence independent of distance, and so all frequencies must travel at nearly the same speed. Recall that

vw = fλ.

In a given medium under fixed conditions, vw is constant, so that there is a relationship between f and λ ; the higher the frequency, the smaller the wavelength. See the figure below and consider the following example.

Because they travel at the same speed in a given medium, low-frequency sounds must have a greater wavelength than high-frequency sounds. Here, the lower-frequency sounds are emitted by the large speaker, called a woofer, while the higher-frequency sounds are emitted by the small speaker, called a tweeter.

The speed of sound can change when sound travels from one medium to another. However, the frequency usually remains the same because it is like a driven oscillation and has the frequency of the original source. If vw changes and f remains the same, then the wavelength λ must change. That is, because vw = fλ , the higher the speed of a sound, the greater its wavelength for a given frequency.

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