How Does Sound Waves Work?

- May 25, 2018-

Sound waves exist as variations of pressure in a medium such as air. They are created by the vibration of an object, which causes the air surrounding it to vibrate. The vibrating air then causes the human eardrum to vibrate, which the brain interprets as sound.

Sound waves travel through air in much the same way as water waves travel through water. In fact, since water waves are easy to see and understand, they are often used as an analogy to illustrate how sound waves behave.

Sound waves can also be shown in a standard x vs y graph, as shown here. This allows us to visualise and work with waves from a mathematical point of view. The resulting curves are known as the "waveform" (i.e. the form of the wave.)


Note that a waveform graph is two-dimensional but in the real world sound waves are three-dimensional. The graph indicates a wave traveling along a path from left to right, but real sound waves travel in an expanding sphere from the source. However the 2-dimensional model works fairly well when thinking about how sound travels from one place to another.

In an electronic signal, high values represent high positive voltage. When this signal is converted to a sound wave, you can think of high values as representing areas of increased air pressure. When the waveform hits a high point, this corresponds to molecules of air being packed together densely. When the wave hits a low point the air molecules are spread more thinly.

In the diagram below, the black dots represent air molecules. As the loudspeaker vibrates, it causes the surrounding molecules to vibrate in a particular pattern represented by the waveform. The vibrating air then causes the listener's eardrum to vibrate in the same pattern.


Note that air molecules do not actually travel from the loudspeaker to the ear (that would be wind). Each individual molecule only moves a small distance as it vibrates, but it causes the adjacent molecules to vibrate in a rippling effect all the way to the ear.

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