Wave Motion

Since sound is a wave motion in matter, it can best be understood by first considering water waves. When an object is thrown into a pool, a series of circular waves travel away from the disturbance. In Figure 3-47 such waves are seen from a top perspective, with the waves traveling out from the center. In the cross-section perspective in Figure 3-47, notice that the water waves are a succession of crests and troughs. The wavelength is the distance from the crest of one wave to the crest of the next. Water waves are known as transverse waves because the motion of the water molecules is up and down, or at right angles to the direction in which the waves are traveling. This can be seen by observing a cork on the water, bobbing up and down as the waves pass by.

Sound travels through matter in the form of longitudinal wave motions. These waves are called longitudinal waves because the particles of the medium vibrate back and forth longitudinally in the direction of propagation. [Figure 3-48] When the tine of a tuning fork moves in an outward direction, the air immediately in front of the tine is compressed so that its momentary pressure is raised above that at other points in the surrounding medium. Because air is elastic, this disturbance is transmitted progressively in an outward direction from the tine in the form of a compression wave.

When the tine returns and moves in an inward direction, the air in front of the tine is rarefied so that its momentary pressure is reduced below that at other points in the surrounding medium. This disturbance is transmitted in the form of a rarefaction (expansion) wave and follows the compression wave through the medium. The progress of any wave involves two distinct motions: (1) The wave itself moves forward with constant speed, and (2) simultaneously, the particles of the medium that convey the wave vibrate harmonically. Examples of harmonic motion are the motion of a clock pendulum, the balance wheel in a watch, and the piston in a reciprocating engine.

Speed of Sound

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).

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