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Sound is a Mechanical Wave

Sound and music are parts of our everyday sensory experience. Just as humans have eyes for the detection of light and color, so we are equipped with ears for the detection of sound.We seldom take the time to ponder the characteristics and behaviors of sound and the mechanisms by which sounds are produced, propagated, and detected. The basis for an understanding of sound, music and hearing is the physics of waves. Sound is a wave which is created by vibrating objects and propagated through a medium from one location to another. In this unit, we will investigate the nature, properties and behaviors of sound waves and apply basic wave principles towards an understanding of music.

As discussed in the previous unit of The Physics Classroom, a wave can be described as a disturbance that travels through a medium, transporting energy from one location to another location. The medium is simply the material through which the disturbance is moving; it can be thought of as a series of interacting particles. The example of a slinky wave is often used to illustrate the nature of a wave. A disturbance is typically created within the slinky by the back and forth movement of the first coil of the slinky. The first coil becomes disturbed and begins to push or pull on the second coil; this push or pull on the second coil will displace the second coil from its equilibrium position. As the second coil becomes displaced, it begins to push or pull on the third coil; the push or pull on the third coil displaces it from its equilibrium position. As the third coil becomes displaced, it begins to push or pull on the fourth coil. This process continues in consecutive fashion, each individual particle acting to displace the adjacent particle; subsequently the disturbance travels through the slinky. As the disturbance moves from coil to coil, the energy which was originally introduced into the first coil is transported along the medium from one location to another.

A sound wave is similar in nature to a slinky wave for a variety of reasons. First, there is a medium which carries the disturbance from one location to another. Typically, this medium is air; though it could be any material such as water or steel. The medium is simply a series of interconnected and interacting particles. Second, there is an original source of the wave, some vibrating object capable of disturbing the first particle of the medium. The vibrating object which creates the disturbance could be the vocal chords of a person, the vibrating string and sound board of a guitar or violin, the vibrating tines of a tuning fork, or the vibrating diaphragm of a radio speaker. Third, the sound wave is transported from one location to another by means of the particle interaction. If the sound wave is moving through air, then as one air particle is displaced from its equilibrium position, it exerts a push or pull on its nearest neighbors, causing them to be displaced from their equilibrium position. This particle interaction continues throughout the entire medium, with each particle interacting and causing a disturbance of its nearest neighbors. Since a sound wave is a disturbance which is transported through a medium via the mechanism of particle interaction, a sound wave is characterized as a mechanical wave.