A taut string anchored at both ends increases in tension as the string is displaced to a side. When released the string will vibrate at whatever frequency to which the system is tuned.

If this were a simple standing wave it seems that tension would drop as the string moved to the neutral position and increase again as it deflected on the opposing side. Harmonics in this case would not change the behavior.

Is this the way an actual string behaves, or is there some other oscillation pattern that allows tension to remain relatively constant even as the string vibrates? Does a vibrating string always produce changes in tension?


2 Answers 2


This question covers a lot of area, so let's work through it piece by piece.

First, the normal approximation for a vibrating string is (a) a transverse (perpendicular to string) displacement that (b) is a small where (c) the string acts like a spring: (small) changes in length result in (small) changes to the tension.

What's "small"? Much less than what's already there.

In that case, there is a periodic change in tension as the string vibrates. It goes like the amplitude squared: two positive peaks and two zeros per cycle of the string. Again, this is small compared to the tension already in the string, and is usually ignored on that basis.

If the amplitude is large, so that the tension change is large, then the motion gets more complicated: Still periodic, but not the nice sinusoidal form with constant frequency. The increased tension at the peaks tends to "flatten" the plus and minus peaks of the sinusoidal motion by pulling back early; it also raises the frequency as the amplitude increases. With even more tension, it gets even more complicated...

But there are string oscillations that behave somewhat differently. For example, a rotary vibration is possible: Think of the motion of a double-dutch jump rope that's circling around with two fixed end points. That's vibrating, but it also has a constant length hence (slightly) increased, but constant, tension.

  • $\begingroup$ The complex oscillation for larger amplitude is part of what makes some musical instruments sound the way they do. It changes the behavior of various frequencies other than the harmonic and how they interact with the body of the instrument. So, for example, plucking a guitar string harder does not only make the note louder. $\endgroup$
    – user93146
    Jul 1, 2018 at 1:50
  • $\begingroup$ So would plucking a guitar in a moderate way be considered "small", or would it be large enough to create the complex intonation puppetsock describes? How would the change in tension (assume it is not the whirling jump rope case) compare in magnitude to the transverse force generated at an anchor, as through the bridge of said guitar? $\endgroup$
    – Pilothead
    Jul 1, 2018 at 2:10

String vibration, as well as vibration of other mechanical oscillators (springs, pendulums, etc.) involves periodic back and forth transitions between its kinetic and potential energy.

The potential energy of a string is associated with its tension, the kinetic energy - with its velocity.

So, if the tension of a string stayed the same, its potential energy would not be changing, there would not be any transitions between potential and kinetic energy and, therefore, there would not be any vibrations.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The first sentence is a good general rule, but it’s not really a general principle. Consider e.g the conical pendulum or helical traveling wave. Both have constant potential energy and constant tension, but exhibit oscillatory (periodic) motion. They can be analyzed in terms of x and y components that separately have changing values, but tension and total potential are constant. $\endgroup$ Jul 1, 2018 at 4:29
  • $\begingroup$ @BobJacobsen Thanks for the feedback. By that definition, a spinning wheel is an oscillator as well (which is OK with me), but the question was specifically about a vibrating string, so I focused on that and did not try to cover all possible oscillators. $\endgroup$
    – V.F.
    Jul 1, 2018 at 4:46

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