I am confused by the use of "linear" in SHM. What does linear actually signify in Linear SHM. Does it mean :-

  1. That the displacement is linear? (I suppose it isn't since displacement varies sinusoidal in SHM and sine and cosine functions aren't linear)

  2. Does it refer to geometrical notion of motion i.e the motion (oscillation) is in a straight line?

  3. Or is it just that the restoring force varies linearly with the displacement (for small deflection)?

As per definition I think that the force-displacement linearity is what is being referred in this context. But how do we classify a system as linear in general? Like how do we know what linearity means in a given context?

  • $\begingroup$ Have you got a place where it is used? For example, if the restoring force is approximately linear for small displacement from equilibrium, then it might be possible to treat a system as undergoing SHM for small oscilations. For example, consider an object in a bowl shaped potential that is nearly linear near the bottom, but departs from linear as displacement increases. $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Dec 22, 2021 at 5:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The differential equation is linear $\endgroup$
    – Jbag1212
    Dec 22, 2021 at 5:54

1 Answer 1


It is a matter of definition, as given here. An ordinary differential equation of order $n$ is linear if the function $x(t)$ and its n-1 derivatives appear in the equation specifically to the power 1:


where the coefficients $a(t), b(t), ..., z(t)$ and the "driving force" $F(t)$ may be nonlinear functions in the independent variable $t$, but the overall left hand side of the ODE is a linear combination of the function $x$ and its derivatives.

This definition of linearity applies to both the undamped and damped harmonic oscillator models (and both their homogenous and driven varieties), which can be expressed as:

$kx(t)+mx''(t)=0$ (undamped and undriven)

$kx(t)+mx''(t)=F(t)$ (undamped and driven)

$kx(t)+dx'(t)+mx''(t)=0$ (damped and undriven)

$kx(t)+dx'(t)+mx''(t)=F(t)$ (damped and driven)

Therefore, a linear oscillator requires

  1. Hooke's law (or some other expression where the restoring force is linear in $x$ or its derivatives),
  2. A damping force which is linear in $x$ or its derivatives (most commonly $x'$, or it may simply be neglected) and
  3. Newton's Second Law of Motion, which guarantees the net force is also linear in $x$ or its derivatives (specifically $x''$).

This means if a nonlinear version of Hooke's Law was used, the resulting system (the ODE) would be nonlinear because there would be a nonlinear term in $x$. However, using the linear expression of Hooke's Law only guarantees linearity of the system if there is no damping present or if the damping is linear as well. If the system is a "simple" harmonic oscillator that will be the case (and there we be no driving force as well).

Note that a linear oscillator does not need to be simple, it may be damped and/or driven.

  • $\begingroup$ I just wanted to clarify , isn't displacement non linear with respect to time (since it is sinusoidal ) for SHM. So for the restoring force to be linearly proportional to the displacement, I suppose the restoring force should also non-linear (sinusoidal). Is it right? $\endgroup$ Dec 23, 2021 at 2:51
  • $\begingroup$ @AbhishekPG That's correct. $\endgroup$ Dec 23, 2021 at 3:54

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