I had a question regarding phonon spectrum in condensed matter.

Consider a cubic lattice with '$p$' atoms per primitive cell. Consider the lattice plane used for derivation of the phonon spectrum to be the face of the cube and consider only nearest neighbour interactions. Consider the force on the plane to be directly proportional to the nearest neighbour distance with that of the neighbouring planes. Using this prescription (described in Introduction to Solid State Physics by Charles Kittel for example) we get $\omega$ versus $k$ curves depending on the value of $p$ . My question is how do you classify these curves into 'acoustic' and 'optical' modes? On what basis is the nomenclature of 'optical' and 'acoustic' used? Further, why are there only 3 acoustic modes be it any '$p$' value?


2 Answers 2


Citing the wikipedia article:

Acoustic phonons are coherent movements of atoms of the lattice out of their equilibrium positions. If the displacement is in the direction of propagation, then in some areas the atoms will be closer, in others farther apart, as in a sound wave in air (hence the name acoustic). Displacement perpendicular to the propagation direction is comparable to waves in water.

Optical phonons are out-of-phase movement of the atoms in the lattice, one atom moving to the left, and its neighbour to the right. This occurs if the lattice is made of atoms of different charge or mass. They are called optical because in ionic crystals, such as sodium chloride, they are excited by infrared radiation.

Bottom line:

  • acoustic phonons are comparable by their mode of movement to sound waves
  • optical phonons couple to electromagnetic field (part of the spectrum of which is studied by optics)
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "This occurs if the lattice is made of atoms of different charge or mass." Wouldnt a non Bravais lattice made of the same atoms have optical modes? For example, a diamond. $\endgroup$
    – jinawee
    Jan 13, 2016 at 14:13
  • $\begingroup$ @jinawee Indeed, it would, since apart from modes of the Bravais lattice (FCC with fixed two-atomic basis) there would also be modes movement of the basis atoms, and their interaction would lead to breaking of dispersion curves. But since your quote is from a citation of wikipedia, I'll leave it verbatim. The OP is a question of nomenclature, and your comment is just a detail, which is not very relevant to it IMHO. $\endgroup$
    – Ruslan
    Jan 13, 2016 at 14:23

The classification into acoustic and optical is to do with the behaviour of the Dispersion relation $\omega(k)$ at the centre of the zone, ie as $k$ tends to 0. For the acoustic branches the dispersion relation is approximately linear there, so that $\omega(k)=v_{sound}k$ which is equivalent to the usual frequency/wavelength relationship.

In addition, taking the one-dimensional two mass setup of this problem as an example, there are two modes of vibration, one where the two masses are vibrating in phase with each other, and one where they are vibrating in anti-phase. The first of these resembles "normal" sound waves, where the vibrations are straightforwardly passed down the crystal, and as such this is another factor.

Lastly I believe there is the fact that the wave speed for the acoustic branches, the limit of $\omega/k$ as $k$ goes to zero, is of the same order as sound speeds in e.g. air.

  • $\begingroup$ The dispersion relation for electromagnetic waves is also of the form $\omega=ck$ . Then why is it called acoustic mode? Comparing the dispersion relation at the zone boundary and distinguishing the curves is fine, but is there any physical reason for such a nomenclature? $\endgroup$
    – Abhijit
    Mar 16, 2015 at 9:53
  • $\begingroup$ you are right, and I realised that just after I hit submit! $\endgroup$
    – danimal
    Mar 16, 2015 at 12:05
  • $\begingroup$ Taking note of your edited answer and considering that the speed is of the order of sound waves, the name 'optical' still remains unclear. As regards to the phase phenomenon that you mentioned, I don't think that it's true that these 'normal' waves aren't present in the optical counterpart. $\endgroup$
    – Abhijit
    Mar 16, 2015 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonon#Dispersion_relation $\endgroup$
    – danimal
    Mar 16, 2015 at 14:24
  • $\begingroup$ Optical phonons are called "optical" because they couple to electromagnetic radiation. See Ruslan's answer. $\endgroup$
    – DanielSank
    Jan 12, 2016 at 7:55

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