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This article is about compression waves. For other meanings, see sound (disambiguation). For information on using or contributing sound files to Wikipedia, see Wikipedia:Sound.

"Sound is an alternation in pressure, particle displacement, or particle velocity propagated in an elastic material" (Olson 1957) or series of mechanical compressions and rarefactions or longitudinal waves that successively propagate through medium that are at least a little compressible (solid, liquid or gas but not vacuum). In sound waves parts of matter (molecules or groups of molecules) move in a direction of the spreading of the disturbance (as opposite to transversal waves). The cause of sound waves is called the source of waves, e.g. a violin string vibrating upon being bowed or plucked.

A sound wave is usually represented graphically by a wavy, horizontal line; the upper part of the wave (the crest) indicates a compression and the lower part (the trough) indicates a rarefaction.


Attributes of sound

The characteristics of sound are frequency, wavelength, amplitude and velocity.

Frequency and wavelength

The frequency is the number of oscillations of a particular point in the course of soundwaves in a second. One single oscillatory cycle per second corresponds to 1 Hz(1/s). The wavelength is the distance between two successive crests and is the path that a wave travels in the time of one oscillatory cycle. In the case of longitudinal harmonic sound waves we can describe it with the equation

y(x,t) = y_0sin\omega(t-\frac{x}{c})

where y(x,t) is the displacement of particles from the stable position (y0) in the direction of spreading of waves, while x is the displacement of the source of waves, c is the speed of waves, ω is the angle speed of the source of waves and x/c is the time that the wave needs to travel the path x. Time of one oscillatory cycle is denoted by t.


The amplitude is the magnitude of sound pressure change within the wave. It is the maximal displacement of particles of matter that is obtained in compressions, where the particles of matter move towards each other and pressure increases the most and in rarefactions, where the pressure lessens the most. See also particle displacement and particle velocity. While the pressure can be measured in pascals, the amplitude is more often referred to as sound pressure level and measured in decibels, or dBSPL, sometimes written as dBspl or dB(SPL). When the measurement is adjusted based on how the human ear perceives loudness based on frequency, it is called dBA or A-weighting. See decibels for a more thorough discussion.


The speed of this propagation depends on the type, temperature and pressure of the medium. Under normal conditions, however, because air is nearly a perfect gas, it does not depend on the air pressure. In dry air at 20 C (68 F) the speed of sound is approximately 343 m/s. A real-world estimate is nearly 1 meter per 3 milliseconds.

Types of sounds

Noises are irregular and disordered vibrations, they include all possible frequencies, their picture does not repeat in time. The noise is an aperiodic series of waves.

Sounds that are sine waves with fixed frequency and amplitude are perceived as pure tones. While sound waves are usually visualised as sine waves, sound waves can have arbitrary shapes and frequency content, limited only by the apparatus that generates them and the medium through which they travel. In fact, most sound waves consist of multiple overtones or harmonics and any sound can be thought of as being composed of sine waves (see additive synthesis). Waveforms commonly used to approximate harmonic sounds in nature include sawtooth waves, square waves and triangle waves.

While a sound may still be referred to as being of a single frequency (for example, a piano striking the A above middle C is said to be playing a note at 440 Hz), the sound perceived by a listener will be colored by all of the sound wave's frequency components and their relative amplitudes (see timbre.) For convenience in this article, however, it is best to think of sound waves as sine waves.

Perception of sound

The frequency range of sound audible to humans is approximately between 20 and 20,000 Hz. This range varies by individual and generally shrinks with age. It is also an uneven curve - sounds near 3,500 Hz are often perceived as louder than a sound with the same amplitude at a much lower or higher frequency. Above and below this range are ultrasound and infrasound, respectively. The amplitude range of sound for humans has a lower limit of 0 dBSPL, called the threshold of hearing. While there is technically no upper limit, sounds begin to do damage to ears at 85 dBSPL and sounds above approximately 130 dBSPL (called the threshold of pain) cause pain. Again, this range varies by individual and changes with age.

The perception of sound is the sense of hearing. In humans and many animals this is accomplished by the ears, but loud sounds and low frequency sounds can be perceived by other parts of the body through the sense of touch. Sounds are used in several ways, most notably for communication through speech or, for example, music. Sound perception can also be used for acquiring information about the surrounding environment in properties such as spatial characteristics and presence of other animals or objects. For example, bats use one sort of echolocation, ships and submarines use sonar, and humans can determine spatial information by the way in which they perceive sounds.

The study of sound is called acoustics and is performed by acousticians. A notable subset is psychoacoustics, which combines acoustics and psychology to study how people react to sounds.

See also

Sound measurement


  • Olson (1957) cited in Roads, Curtis (2001). Microsound. MIT. ISBN 0262182157.

External links

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