wave motion. Although sound waves and the electromagnetic waves used in the propagation of radio and radar differ, both types of waves have many of the same characteristics. ">

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The study of sound is important because of the role sound plays in the depth finding equipment (fathometer) and underwater detection equipment (sonar) used by the Navy.

As you know, sound travels through a medium by wave motion. Although sound waves and the electromagnetic waves used in the propagation of radio and radar differ, both types of waves have many of the same characteristics. Studying the principles of sound-wave motion will help you understand the actions of both sound waves and the more complex radio and radar electromagnetic waves. The major differences among sound waves, heat waves, and light waves are (1) their frequencies; (2) their types; the mediums through which they travel; and the velocities at which they travel.


The word SOUND is used in everyday speech to signify a variety of things. One definition of sound is the sensation of hearing. Another definition refers to a stimulus that is capable of producing the sensation of hearing. A third definition limits sound to what is actually heard by the human ear.

In the study of physics, sound is defined as a range of compression-wave frequencies to which the human ear is sensitive. For the purpose of this chapter, however, we need to broaden the definition of sound to include compression waves that are not always audible to the human ear. To distinguish frequencies in the audible range from those outside that range, the words SONIC, ULTRASONIC, and INFRASONIC are used.

Sounds capable of being heard by the human ear are called SONICS. The normal hearing range extends from about 20 to 20,000 hertz. However, to establish a standard sonic range, the Navy has set an arbitrary upper limit for sonics at 10,000 hertz and a lower limit at 15 hertz. Even though the average person can hear sounds above 10,000 hertz, it is standard practice to refer to sounds above that frequency as ultrasonic. Sounds between 15 hertz and 10,000 hertz are called sonic, while sounds below 15 hertz are known as infrasonic (formerly referred to as subsonic) sounds.

Q.16 What term describes sounds capable of being heard by the human ear? answer.gif (214 bytes)
Q.17 Are all sounds audible to the human ear? Why?answer.gif (214 bytes)


Recall that sound waves are compression waves. The existence of compression waves depends on the transfer of energy. To produce vibrations that become sounds, a mechanical device (the source) must first receive an input of energy. Next, the device must be in contact with a medium that will receive the sound energy and carry it to a receiver. If the device is not in contact with a medium, the energy will not be transferred to a receiver, and there will be no sound.

Thus, three basic elements for transmission and reception of sound must be present before a sound can be produced. They are (1) the source (or transmitter), (2) a medium for carrying the sound (air, water, metal, etc.), and (3) the detector (or receiver).

A simple experiment provides convincing evidence that a medium must be present if sound is to be transferred. In figure 1-12, an electric bell is suspended by rubber bands in a bell jar from which the air can be removed. An external switch is connected from a battery to the bell so the bell may be rung intermittently. As the air is pumped out, the sound from the bell becomes weaker and weaker. If a perfect vacuum could be obtained, and if no sound were conducted out of the jar by the rubber bands, the sound from the bell would be completely inaudible. In other words, sound cannot be transmitted through a vacuum. When the air is admitted again, the sound is as loud as it was at the beginning. This experiment shows that when air is in contact with the vibrating bell, it carries energy to the walls of the jar, which in turn are set in vibration. Thus, the energy passes into the air outside of the jar and then on to the ear of the observer. This experiment illustrates that sound cannot exist in empty space (or a vacuum).

Figure 1-12. - No air, no sound.

Any object that moves rapidly back and forth, or vibrates, and thus disturbs the medium around it may be considered a source for sound. Bells, speakers, and stringed instruments are familiar sound sources.

The material through which sound waves travel is called the medium. The density of the medium determines the ease, distance, and speed of sound transmission. The higher the density of the medium, the slower sound travels through it.

The detector acts as the receiver of the sound wave. Because it does not surround the source of the sound wave, the detector absorbs only part of the energy from the wave and sometimes requires an amplifier to boost the weak signal.

As an illustration of what happens if one of these three elements is not present, let's refer to our experiment in which a bell was placed in a jar containing a vacuum. You could see the bell being struck, but you could hear no sound because there was no medium to transmit sound from the bell to you. Now let's look at another example in which the third element, the detector, is missing. You see a source (such as an explosion) apparently producing a sound, and you know the medium (air) is present, but you are too far away to hear the noise. Thus, as far as you are concerned, there is no detector and, therefore, no sound. We must assume, then, that sound can exist only when a source transmits sound through a medium, which passes it to a detector. Therefore, in the absence of any one of the basic elements (source, medium, detector) there can be NO sound.

Q.18 Sound waves transmitted from a source are sometimes weak when they reach the detector. What instrument is needed to boost the weak signal? answer.gif (214 bytes)


Sound waves vary in length according to their frequency. A sound having a long wavelength is heard at a low pitch (low frequency); one with a short wavelength is heard at a high pitch (high frequency). A complete wavelength is called a cycle. The distance from one point on a wave to the corresponding point on the next wave is a wavelength. The number of cycles per second (hertz) is the frequency of the sound. The frequency of a sound wave is also the number of vibrations per second produced by the sound source.

Q.19 What are the three basic requirements for sound? answer.gif (214 bytes)


Sound waves travel at great distances in a very short time, but as the distance increases the waves tend to spread out. As the sound waves spread out, their energy simultaneously spreads through an increasingly larger area. Thus, the wave energy becomes weaker as the distance from the source is increased.

Sounds may be broadly classified into two general groups. One group is NOISE, which includes sounds such as the pounding of a hammer or the slamming of a door. The other group is musical sounds, or TONES. The distinction between noise and tone is based on the regularity of the vibrations, the degree of damping, and the ability of the ear to recognize components having a musical sequence. You can best understand the physical difference between these kinds of sound by comparing the waveshape of a musical note, depicted in view A of figure 1-13, with the waveshape of noise, shown in view B. You can see by the comparison of the two waveshapes, that noise makes a very irregular and haphazard curve and a musical note makes a uniform and regular curve.

Figure 1-13. - Musical sound versus noise.

Sound has three basic characteristics: pitch, intensity, and quality. Each of these three characteristics is associated with one of the properties of the source or the type of waves which it produces. The pitch depends upon the frequency of the waves; the intensity depends upon the amplitude of the waves; and the quality depends upon the form of the waves. With the proper combination of these characteristics, the tone is pleasant to the ear. With the wrong combination, the sound quality turns into noise.

The Pitch of Sound

The term PITCH is used to describe the frequency of a sound. An object that vibrates many times per second produces a sound with a high pitch, as with a police whistle. The slow vibrations of the heavier strings of a violin cause a low-pitched sound. Thus, the frequency of the wave determines pitch. When the frequency is low, sound waves are long; when it is high, the waves are short. A sound can be so high in frequency that the waves reaching the ear cannot be heard. Likewise, some frequencies are so low that the eardrums do not convert them into sound. The range of sound that the human ear can detect varies with each individual.

The Intensity of Sound

The intensity of sound, at a given distance, depends upon the amplitude of the waves. Thus, a tuning fork gives out more energy in the form of sound when struck hard than when struck gently. You should remember that when a tuning fork is struck, the sound is omnidirectional (heard in all directions), because the sound waves spread out in all directions, as shown in figure 1-14. You can see from the figure that as the distance between the waves and the sound source increases, the energy in each wave spreads over a greater area; hence, the intensity of the sound decreases. The speaking tubes sometimes used aboard a ship prevent the sound waves from spreading in all directions by concentrating them in one desired direction (unidirectional), producing greater intensity. Therefore, the sound is heard almost at its original intensity at the opposite end of the speaking tube. The unidirectional megaphone and the directional loudspeaker also prevent sound waves from spreading in all directions.

Figure 1-14. - Sound waves spread in all directions.

Sound intensity and loudness are often mistakenly interpreted as having the same meaning. Although they are related, they are not the same. Sound INTENSITY is a measure of the sound energy of a wave. LOUDNESS, on the other hand, is the sensation the intensity (and sometimes frequency) the sound wave produces on the ear. Increasing the intensity causes an increase in loudness but not in a direct proportion. For instance, doubling the loudness of a sound requires about a tenfold increase in the intensity of the sound.

Sound Quality

Most sounds, including musical notes, are not pure tones. They are a mixture of different frequencies (tones). A tuning fork, when struck, produces a pure tone of a specific frequency. This pure tone is produced by regular vibrations of the source (tines of the tuning fork). On the other hand, scraping your fingernails across a blackboard only creates noise, because the vibrations are irregular. Each individual pipe of a pipe organ is similar to a tuning fork, and each pipe produces a tone of a specific frequency. But sounding two or more pipes at the same time produces a complex waveform. A tone that closely imitates any of the vowel sounds can be produced by selecting the proper pipes and sounding them at the same time. Figure 1-15 illustrates the combining of two pure tones to make a COMPLEX WAVE.

Figure 1-15. - Combination of tones.

The QUALITY of a sound depends on the complexity of its sound waves, such as the waves shown in tone C of figure 1-15. Almost all sounds (musical and vocal included) have complicated (complex) waveforms. Tone A is a simple wave of a specific frequency that can be produced by a tuning fork, piano, organ, or other musical instrument. Tone B is also a simple wave but at a different frequency. When the two tones are sounded together, the complex waveform in tone C is produced. Note that tone C has the same frequency as tone A with an increase in amplitude. The human ear could easily distinguish between tone A and tone C because of the quality. Therefore, we can say that quality distinguishes tones of like pitch and loudness when sounded on different types of musical instruments. It also distinguishes the voices of different persons.

Q.20 What are the two general groups of sound? answer.gif (214 bytes)
Q.21 What are the three basic characteristics of sound?answer.gif (214 bytes)
Q.22 What is the normal audible range of the human ear?answer.gif (214 bytes)
Q.23 What is intensity as it pertains to sound? answer.gif (214 bytes)
Q.24 What characteristic of sound enables a person to distinguish one musical instrument from another, if they are all playing the same note?answer.gif (214 bytes)

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