Sound – Wave Motion

in Physics

Sound has been defined as a series of disturbances in matter that the human ear can detect. This definition can also be applied to disturbances which are beyond the range of human hearing. There are three elements which are necessary for the transmission and reception of sound. These are the source, a medium for carrying the sound, and the detector. Anything which moves back and forth (vibrates) and disturbs the medium around it may be considered a sound source.

An example of the production and transmission of sound is the ring of a bell. When the bell is struck and begins to vibrate, the particles of the medium (the surrounding air) in contact with the bell also vibrate. The vibrational disturbance is transmitted from one particle of the medium to the next, and the vibrations travel in a “wave” through the medium until they reach the ear. The eardrum, acting as detector, is set in motion by the vibrating particles of air, and the brain interprets the eardrum’s vibrations as the characteristic sound associated with a bell.

Wave Motion

Since sound is a wave motion in matter, it can best be understood by first considering water waves. When an object is thrown into a pool, a series of circular waves travel away from the disturbance. In Figure 3-47 such waves are seen from a top perspective, with the waves traveling out from the center. In the cross-section perspective in Figure 3-47, notice that the water waves are a succession of crests and troughs. The wavelength is the distance from the crest of one wave to the crest of the next. Water waves are known as transverse waves because the motion of the water molecules is up and down, or at right angles to the direction in which the waves are traveling. This can be seen by observing a cork on the water, bobbing up and down as the waves pass by.

Figure 3-47. Relationship between sound and waves in water.

Figure 3-47. Relationship between sound and waves in water.

Sound travels through matter in the form of longitudinal wave motions. These waves are called longitudinal waves because the particles of the medium vibrate back and forth longitudinally in the direction of propagation. [Figure 3-48] When the tine of a tuning fork moves in an outward direction, the air immediately in front of the tine is compressed so that its momentary pressure is raised above that at other points in the surrounding medium. Because air is elastic, this disturbance is transmitted progressively in an outward direction from the tine in the form of a compression wave.

Figure 3-48. Sound propagation by a tuning fork.

Figure 3-48. Sound propagation by a tuning fork.

When the tine returns and moves in an inward direction, the air in front of the tine is rarefied so that its momentary pressure is reduced below that at other points in the surrounding medium. This disturbance is transmitted in the form of a rarefaction (expansion) wave and follows the compression wave through the medium. The progress of any wave involves two distinct motions: (1) The wave itself moves forward with constant speed, and (2)  simultaneously, the particles of the medium that convey the wave vibrate harmonically. Examples of harmonic motion are the motion of a clock pendulum, the balance wheel in a watch, and the piston in a reciprocating engine.

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