Having some free time, I've begun a mini-project attempting to understand how music works in more detail, which has so far only involved music theory and a bit of set theory. I'm now trying to get my head around the physics of sound waves, and in particular, I'm trying to understand how any sound can be analysed as a sum of sin waves. I'm studying for a mathematics degree, so I'm familiar with Fourier transforms, trigonometric functions etc., but I've never really needed to apply them to sound waves in any detail. In this question I'm not really asking how the mathematics of Fourier transforms work, I'm more concerned with the specifics of how a sine (or cosine) function can model a sound wave. Apologies in advance for the long question, it was originally almost twice as long but I've condensed it as much as I could.

I know that a sound wave is an longitudinal oscillation of particles in a medium, and that a wave might be generated by something moving back and forth repeatedly such as a guitar string, or a piece of cardboard inside a speaker. I've had a bit of trouble understanding how these oscillations are passed on, so as context to my questions I'm going to try and explain my current understanding of it (and hopefully this will make it easier to highlight where I've gone wrong).

My conceptual understanding so far: (Having read this question) I'm imagining the first oscillation of a speaker membrane (i.e. a piece of cardboard) in air, but it could be a vocal chord, a guitar string etc. The membrane imparts a certain initial velocity to the particles it hits, but this velocity is quickly absorbed by the surrounding particles of air due to inefficient collisions occurring at angles different to the direction of wave propagation. The nearby particles are pushed very close together, and due to the nature of gases/liquids, spread out, but this causes a gathering of particles somewhere further down the line, and the chain continues until the movement of particles reaches my ear. When the speaker membrane moves backwards, an area of space is freed up for the particles to move into; the particles begin to move in the reverse direction. Since this movement is not at all governed by the initial velocity imparted to the particles, the speed of sound is constant (within a given medium).

If what I have said above is correct, then (as far as I can tell) to define the wavelength $\lambda$ we have to stop time for a moment, then measure the distance between two points where the particles are maximally dense. The frequency $f$ of the speaker membrane is defined to be how many times it oscillates back and forth per unit time, so that if the time taken for one oscillation is $T$, we have $f=\frac{1}{T}$. Clearly the speed of the wave will be $v=\frac{\lambda}{T}=f\lambda$. However we know $v$ is a constant, so increasing the frequency of the speaker membrane means decreasing the wavelength of the wave. Every time the membrane oscillates it sends another chain of dense particles on its way, so that the frequency of the membrane is equal to that of the wave.

Question 1: Does there exist a velocity such that the membrane moves too quickly for the air particles? In order for the above model to work, the air must fill the gap left by the speaker membrane as it oscillates almost instantaneously, else the membrane will have no particles to move on its return journey. The speed of sound in air is $343$ $m/s$. If the membrane moves at say twice this speed, then it will have returned before the air particles have returned to their original positions. Obviously this puts no limit on the frequency, as you can make the velocity of the membrane arbitrarily small by reducing the distance it has to travel, but am I right in saying that this will occur?

Question 2: In which cases can we model sound with a sine function, and why? This is my main problem; I don't understand how a sine function corresponds to a sound wave in reality. Suppose $f(x)=\sin(x)$ where $x$ is the axis of wave propagation. Does $\sin(x)$ (the amplitude) represent the displacement of the speaker membrane from its equilibrium position, or does it represent air pressure (for a given moment)? I'm not quite sure how we even know that air pressure varies in accordance with a sinusoid, I can't seem to find an explanation anywhere. Having googled this quite a lot, I find most courses either just state that the sinusoid will represent air pressure or some other quantity, or worse still they neglect to comment and don't label the axes etc. Also, the function $f(x)=\sin(x)$ is not time dependent, and only represents variation in one axis. If this is the case, how can it fully model the propagation of a wave in space. When you look at wave forms on programs like audacity, they only graph time and amplitude, so a simple pure tone would be a function like $A(t)=\sin(t)$. This function is completely position independent, so I'm assuming it is created by detecting pressure variations at a point and graphing it. It doesn't fully describe the wave though! So I'm wondering what kind of function will represent a pure tone in three dimensions?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ You are correct, a supersonic membrane would create a shockwave in front of the movement and a vacuum behind it. Long before that happens, sound transmission becomes non-linear, because the air heats up due to the compression. As for modeling sound with pure sine waves... for musical purposes that's almost never the case. Instrument sounds that are pleasant to humans usually have a very complex spectrum, with spectra that change from note to note and with very subtle transient components. There is as much art as there is theory to the subject, and none of that is really about physics. $\endgroup$
    – CuriousOne
    Commented Sep 6, 2014 at 19:52

4 Answers 4


To expand on Xcheckr's answer:

The full equation for a single-frequency traveling wave is $$f(x,t) = A \sin(2\pi ft - \frac{2\pi}{\lambda}x).$$ where $f$ is the frequency, $t$ is time, $\lambda$ is the wavelength, $A$ is the amplitude, and $x$ is position. This is often written as $$f(x,t) = A \sin(\omega t - kx)$$ with $\omega = 2\pi f$ and $k = \frac{2\pi}{\lambda}$. If you look at a single point in space (hold $x$ constant), you see that the signal oscillates up and down in time. If you freeze time, (hold $t$ constant), you see the signal oscillates up and down as you move along it in space. If you pick a point on the wave and follow it as time goes forward (hold $f$ constant and let $t$ increase), you have to move in the positive $x$ direction to keep up with the point on the wave.

This only describes a wave of a single frequency. In general, anything of the form $$f(x,t) = w(\omega t - kx),$$ where $w$ is any function, describes a traveling wave.

Sinusoids turn up very often because the vibrating sources of the disturbances that give rise to sound waves are often well-described by $$\frac{\partial^2 s}{\partial t^2} = -a^2 s.$$ In this case, $s$ is the distance from some equilibrium position and $a$ is some constant. This describes the motion of a mass on a spring, which is a good model for guitar strings, speaker cones, drum membranes, saxophone reeds, vocal cords, and on and on. The general solution to that equation is $$s(t) = A\cos(a t) + B\sin(a t).$$ In this equation, one can see that $a$ is the frequency $\omega$ in the traveling wave equations by setting $x$ to a constant value (since the source isn't moving (unless you want to consider Doppler effects)).

For objects more complicated than a mass on a spring, there are multiple $a$ values, so that object can vibrate at multiple frequencies at the same time (think harmonics on a guitar). Figuring out the contributions of each of these frequencies is the purpose of a Fourier transform.


(1) Your first question I feel was adequately answered by CuriousOne. Indeed, the membrane, travelling at twice the speed of sound, would give rise to shock wave. A shock wave can occur basically in any medium and is the reason that you see a nice wake in water behind a swimming duck.

(2) This question really depends on geometry. If the membrane was a circular membrane, one would have to solve the problem in polar coordinates. The solutions to the wave equation in polar coordinates are not $sin(x)$ and $cos(x)$ but are Bessel functions. See this wikipedia entry. In a similar way that any function (in a rectangular geometry) can be expanded in sines and cosines, one can also correspondingly expand any function (in the circular geometry) in terms of the Bessel functions. The wikipedia entry also gives nice visualizations of the standing wave patterns of the circular membrane. Obviously things in real life are a little different, as the speaker membrane is usually conical, but this is a good representation of a drum membrane. If the sound you were concerned with was a cubic drum with a square membrane, then indeed you would get a sinusoidal pattern in all three directions inside the drum.

Hope this helps!


A sound wave is a longitudinal wave, but a sinusoid is a transverse wave so the sinusoidal representation of a sound wave can create confusion. In the transverse representation, you can think of the horizontal axis as the pressure of air in the absence of the sound wave.As the particles in air oscillate back and forth this creates compression and rarefraction in different regions which increases the air pressure in some regions and decreases in others. Therefore the sinusoidal represents the pressure deviation from the equilibrium.

Here https://youtu.be/cK2-6cgqgYA you can find some information about the basics, but at 3.00 the relation you are looking for is illustrated

For a simple explanation we used a pure sine wave, but every periodic wave can be modeled using Fourier Analyses with the same principles applied.


I've seen several very good answers, so I want to concentrate on keeping it simple and understandable.

My conceptual understanding so far:

It looks like you basicly got it. It might be simpler to think of sound as pressure waves. The pressure can't equalize because the areas of high and low pressure are traveling at the speed of sound. What direction do they travel?

The high pressure travels wherever the pressure is lower, not particularly the direction the particles started out moving. Low pressure ditto.

A string vibrating in air doesn't make a whole lot of sound. It just moves a few molecules. To make a lot of sound we connect the string to a sounding board. The string makes something vibrate that has a big surface area, and that gives a lot of sound.

Question 1: Does there exist a velocity such that the membrane moves too quickly for the air particles?

As the others said, yes. That could happen. However, it doesn't have to. To get a high-pitched sound you have to change the direction fast. But it doesn't have to travel very far. So, imagine you have a steel paddle that you waggle to make sounds. Every waggle has to go a whole meter before it can move back. Then to generate a sound with a frequency above 343 cycles per second, the average speed will be more than twice the speed of sound. You are not going to get the sound you want that way.

But you can get plenty of sound moving it a shorter distance, at a slower velocity. After all, a loud violin isn't moving far enough for you to see it move much at all....

In which cases can we model sound with a sine function, and why? This is my main problem; I don't understand how a sine function corresponds to a sound wave in reality. Suppose f(x)=sin(x) where x is the axis of wave propagation. Does sin(x) (the amplitude) represent the displacement of the speaker membrane from its equilibrium position, or does it represent air pressure (for a given moment)?

Pick a spot where you want to think about hearing the sound. f(t) represents the air pressure at a given moment at that one spot. The sound will be louder or softer at other spots, and out of phase.

I'm not quite sure how we even know that air pressure varies in accordance with a sinusoid, I can't seem to find an explanation anywhere.

You're familiar with Fourier transforms, so you know that any measure of pressure can be modeled with some collection of sine functions. A "pure tone" will be one sine wave, and real sounds will be more complicated; a Fourier transform can approximate it as a collection of sine waves, and Bob's your uncle.

Music is largely collections of sine waves. Is all sound like that? How about a firecracker going off. One small sudden explosion, and then the air mostly doesn't rush back in to the vacuum it made because it didn't make a vacuum, it released new gas that smells like gunpowder. Do your Fourier transform and you can treat it as a large collection of sine waves. Is it really sine waves or is it really something else? Is it only a mathematical convenience to treat it that way? I don't know and I don't care, if it's convenient for you to think that way then go ahead, otherwise don't.

So I'm wondering what kind of function will represent a pure tone in three dimensions?

It's pressure waves. At each point you can get the sum of the forces coming from all directions.

Imagine an audience hall and there are two separate open doors leading to an antechamber. At each spot in the antechamber, sound will arrive from both doors and one of them will take a longer path. You will get an interference pattern.

If there are columns inside the hall you will get interference patterns behind them too.

And around all the people.

All very complex starting with a pure tone. If you want a solution, you might do better to do it numerically. Model the shape of the hall, and then use a whole lot of computation to grind out an answer based on all the paths the pressure waves can take, diffracting and reflecting and so on.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.