Sound waves

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Editors: K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner
Date: July 1, 2020
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 991 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
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Sound waves are pressure waves that travel through gas, liquid, or solid. They can be detected and interpreted by instrumentation (e.g., by a seismograph) or by a variety of pressure-sensitive organs in living beings (e.g., the lateral line system in sharks or the human ear). In humans, conversion of the mechanical energy of the sound wave form into nervous stimulation results in the transmission of electrochemical nervous impulses through the human auditory nerve to the brain. The brain interprets these neural signals as sound.

Sound waves are created by any mechanical disturbance in a material medium. Individual particles are not transmitted with the wave, but the propagation of the wave causes particles (e.g., individual air molecules) to oscillate about an equilibrium position. Sound cannot travel through a vacuum.

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Doppler effect (also known as Doppler shift)
Named for Austrian mathematician and physicist Christian Doppler (1803–1853). The Doppler effect describes the apparent change in frequency of sound or light waves, varying with the relative velocity of the source and the observer. If the source and observer draw closer together, the frequency is increased.
State in which all forces balance each other out.
The speed of sound in air (under certain temperature conditions) is called Mach 1, with Mach 2 being twice that speed, and so forth.
Mechanical energy
Energy possessed by matter in motion. Winds and water currents, for example, possess mechanical energy.
The science that deals with Earth's atmosphere and its phenomena and with weather and weather forecasting.
Having the shape or being related to the shape of a sine wave or sine curve.
Short for Sound Navigation and Ranging (SONAR). A remote sensing system with important military, scientific and commercial applications. Active SONAR transmits acoustic (i.e., sound) waves. Passive SONAR is a listening mode to detect noise generated from targets.

Background and scientific foundations

Every solid object has a unique natural frequency of vibration. Vibration can be induced by direct forcible disturbance of an object—such as striking it—. Or, it can be achieved through the forcible disturbance of the medium in contact with an object (e.g. the surrounding air or water). Once excited, all such vibrators (i.e., vibratory bodies) become generators of sound waves. For example, when a rock falls, the surrounding air and impacted crust undergo sinusoidal oscillations and generate a sound wave.

Vibratory bodies can also absorb sound waves. Vibrating bodies can, however, efficiently vibrate only at certain frequencies. These are called the natural frequencies of oscillation. In the case of a tuning fork, if a traveling sinusoidal sound wave has the same frequency as the sound wave naturally produced by the oscillations of the tuning fork, the traveling pressure wave can induce vibration of the tuning fork at that particular frequency.

Mechanical resonance occurs with the application of a periodic force at the same frequency as the natural vibration frequency. As such, as the pressure fluctuations in a resonant traveling sound wave strike the prongs of the fork, the prongs experience successive forces at appropriate intervals to produce sound generation at the natural vibrational or natural sound frequency. If the resonant traveling wave continues to exert force, the amplitude of oscillation of the tuning fork will increase. The sound wave emanating from the tuning fork will grow stronger. If the frequencies are within the range of human hearing, the sound will seem to grow louder. Singers are able to break glass by loudly singing a note at the natural vibrational frequency of the glass. Vibrations induced in the glass can become so strong that the glass exceeds its elastic limit and breaks. Similar phenomena occur in rock formations.

Sound wave interactions and the Doppler effect

Sound waves can potentiate or cancel in accord with the principle of superposition and whether they are in phase or out of phase with each other. Waves of all forms can undergo constructive or destructive interference.

Sound waves also exhibit Doppler shifts. Such shifts create an apparent change in frequency due to relative motion between the source of sound emission and the receiving point. When sound waves move toward an observer, the Doppler effect shifts observed frequencies higher. When sound waves move away from an observer, the Doppler effect shifts observed frequencies lower. The Doppler effect is commonly and easily observed in the passage of planes, trains, and automobiles.

Speed of sound

The speed of propagation of a sound wave depends on the density of the medium of transmission. Weather conditions (e.g., temperature, pressure, humidity, etc.) and certain geophysical topographical features (e.g., mountains or hills) can obstruct sound transmission. The alteration of sound waves by commonly encountered meteorological conditions is generally negligible except when the sound waves propagate over long distances or emanate from a high frequency source. In the extreme cases, atmospheric conditions can bend or alter sound wave transmission.

The speed of sound on a fluid—which in this definition of "fluid" are atmospheric gases—depends on the temperature and density of the fluid. Sound waves travel fast at higher temperatures and density. As a result, in a standard atmosphere, the speed of sound (reflected in the Mach number) lowers with increasing altitude.

Meteorological conditions that create layers of air at vastly different temperatures can refract sound waves.

The speed of sound in water is about four times faster than the speed of sound in air. SONAR sounding of ocean terrains is a common tool of oceanographers. Properties such as pressure, temperature, and salinity also affect the speed of sound in water.


Sound travels well under water. This compels many marine biologists to think that the introduction of human-made noise (e.g., engine noise, propeller sounds, etc.) into the oceans within the last two centuries interferes with previously evolutionarily well-adapted methods of sound communication between marine animals. For example, human-made noise (especially military SONAR) can interfere with long-range communications of whales. Although the impact of this interference is not fully understood, many marine biologists fear that this could impact whale mating and lead to further population reductions or even extinction of the species

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CV2644032076