Speed of Sound

in Physics

In any uniform medium, under given physical conditions, sound travels at a definite speed. In some substances, the velocity of sound is higher than in others. Even in the same medium under different conditions of temperature, pressure, and so forth, the velocity of sound varies. Density and elasticity of a medium are the two basic physical properties which govern the velocity of sound.

In general, a difference in density between two substances is sufficient to indicate which one will be the faster transmission medium for sound. For example, sound travels faster through water than it does through air at the same temperature. However, there are some surprising exceptions to this rule of thumb. An outstanding example among these exceptions involves comparison of the speed of sound in lead and aluminum at the same temperature. Sound travels at 16,700 fps in aluminum at 20°C, and only 4,030 fps in lead at 20°C, despite the fact that lead is much more dense than aluminum. The reason for such exceptions is found in the fact, mentioned above, that sound velocity depends on elasticity as well as density.

Using density as a rough indication of the speed of sound in a given substance, it can be stated as a general rule that sound travels fastest in solid materials, slower in liquids, and slowest in gases. The velocity of sound in air at 0°C (32°F) is 1,087 fps and increases by 2 fps for each Centigrade degree of temperature rise (1.1 fps for each degree Fahrenheit).

Mach Number

In the study of aircraft that fly at supersonic speeds, it is customary to discuss aircraft speed in relation to the velocity of sound (approximately 760 miles per hour (mph) at 59°F). The term “Mach number” has been given to the ratio of the speed of an aircraft to the speed of sound, in honor of Ernst Mach, an Austrian scientist. If the speed of sound at sea level is 760 mph, an aircraft flying at a Mach number of 1.2 at sea level would be traveling at a speed of 760 mph × 1.2 = 912 mph.