Oscillations and waves

Oscillation is a repetitive change of an object’s position from one point to another. If an oscillations takes same amount of time in each and every cycle, it is called periodic oscillation. Examples of periodic oscillation: an oscillating pendulum and the vibrating strings of a guitar.
Mechanical wave is the oscillation of matter, which transfer energy through a material medium.

Oscillating spring-mass system

Consider a spring with a mass attached to it and the mass is on a smooth surface (frictionless surface).
spring mass system
Now, if you pull the mass and move it to a distance $x$, then the spring stretches by the same amount. The force required to stretch the spring by an amount $x$ is $F=kx$, where $k$ is the spring constant. When you apply a force on the mass to stretch the spring, the spring exerts an equal force on the mass in the opposite direction. The force exerted by the spring is called the restoring force:


Due to the restoring force, now if you remove the force on the mass, the mass will oscillate back and forth on the surface. If you pull the mass by a distance $A$ from the equilibrium position ($x=0$) and released, the mass will oscillate between $-A$ and $A$. We call, $A$, the amplitude of oscillation.
oscillating mass
There are two extreme positions for the mass, $x=-A$ and $x=A$. When the mass is at $x=-A$, the spring has its maximum compression, and when it is at $x=A$, the spring stretches at the maximum. At the extreme positions, the mass stops before moving again in the opposite direction, therefore, the velocity of the mass is zero at those positions.

The total energy of the spring-mass system is the kinetic energy of the mass and the potential energy of the spring:


At the extreme positions of the mass, $v=0$, therefore


The mass has its maximum velocity at the equilibrium position, i.e., at $x=0$. The energy of the system at the equilibrium position is therefore,


By equating the above two equations, we can find the maximum velocity of the mass.

Acceleration of the mass

The restoring force by the spring is the only force responsible for the motion of the mass. So the acceleration of the mass can be obtained from this force using Newton's second law:


Period and frequency of oscillation of a spring-mass system

The period or the time for one complete oscillation is

$T=2\pi \sqrt{\dfrac{m}{k}}$

And the frequency of oscillations is obtained by taking reciprocal of the period:


Simple harmonic oscillation

In any oscillating system, there must be a restoring force to continue the oscillation. If the restoring force on an oscillating system is proportional to the negative of the displacement (displacement can be linear, $x$ or angular $\theta$), we call the system a simple harmonic oscillator and the oscillation, simple harmonic oscillation.

i.e., for a simple harmonic oscillator, the restoring force is

$F=-constant\times x$


$F=-constant\times \theta$

A spring-mass system is a simple harmonic oscillator as its restoring force is proportional to the negative of the displacement, $x$ of the mass.

The Simple Pendulum

A simple pendulum is a mass (bob) suspended from a string.
simple pendulum
The period of oscillation of the pendulum is


where $l$ is the length of the pendulum and $g$ is the acceleration due to gravity.
This equation is valid for small amplitudes or angles of oscillations. Period of a pendulum is independent of the mass of the bob.

Mechanical waves

A wave is a disturbance that transfer energy from one place to another without any transfer of mass. Water waves and waves on a rope are mechanical waves, which propagates as oscillations of matter. When waves move, the particle of the medium do not move with the waves but oscillate about an equilibrium position. In water waves, water molecules move up and down. In a rope the particles of the rope oscillate up and down.

There are two types of waves, transverse and longitudinal waves: transverse waves and longitudinal waves.When a wave propagates, if the particles of the medium vibrate perpendicular to the direction of propagation, we call that transverse wave. Examples of transverse waves: waves on a cord/string and water waves.

water waves
Transverse water wave
The high points on a transverse wave are called crests and the low points are called troughs.
tranverse waves
Transverse wave
If the particles of the medium vibrates back and forth along the direction of the wave propagation, then the wave is called longitudinal wave. When a longitudinal wave propagates, it creates regions of compression (high pressure region) and rarefaction (low pressure) in the medium. Example: Sound waves in air. When sound waves travel in air, the air molecules vibrate back and forth in the direction of the sound waves. But the air molecules do not travel with the wave.
longitudinal wave
Longitudinal wave

Wave speed, wavelength, period and frequency

Wave speed is the speed at which any point on the wave appears to move forward.
Wavelength $(\lambda)$ is the distance between two successive crests or troughs of a transverse wave. Actually wavelength is the length of one full wave. To get a full wave, you choose a point on the wave of some height and move forward until you get a point on the wave that has the same height.
The height of a crest or depth of a trough is the amplitude, $A$ of the wave.

In a longitudinal wave, wavelength is the distance between successive compressions (or rarefaction).

Period $(T)$ is the time taken for one full wave to pass a given point, and frequency $(f)$ is the number of waves that pass a given point per unit time.

It takes a time of $T$ for a wave to travel a distance equal to $\lambda$, therefore, the speed of sound is


Since $f=\dfrac{1}{T}$, we have

$v=\lambda f$

Note that frequency of a wave is generally determined by the source that produces the wave but the speed is determined by the medium that the wave propagates.

Speed of transverse waves on a string

Speed of a travsverse wave on a cord or an attached string is


where $F_t$ is the tension on the string and $\mu=m/l$ , where $m$ is the mass of the string and $l$ is its length. $\mu$ is called, the mass per unit length.

Energy and intensity of waves

When a wave propagates it carries energy. Energy of a wave is proportional to the square of the amplitude of the wave:

$E\propto A^2$

Intensity $(I)$, of a wave is the energy, the wave transports per unit time across unit area perpendicular to the direction of propagation.


If you move away from the wave source, the intensity of the wave decreases with distance as inverse square law:

$I\propto 1/r^2$

Standing waves

When a string is plucked, it vibrates up and down. Waves are created which appear not traveling. Such waves are called standing waves. Standing waves are formed when two opposing waves are combined.
stretched string
In the following figures, you see the standing waves on a string. The points where the chord remains still at all times, are called nodes (N). Points where the chord oscillates with maximum amplitude are called antinodes (AN).
stretched string fundamental
In the above picture, there is a half of the wave in the length of the string. If we take $\lambda_1$ is the wavelength of the wave on the string, we get



$\lambda_1 = 2l$

stretched string first overtone
Here, there is one full wave. Therefore,

$l=\lambda_2$, where $\lambda_2$ is the wavelength of the wave.


$\lambda_2 = l$

stretched string second overtone
$l=\dfrac{3}{2} \lambda_2$
Here, there are one and a half wave, by taking the wavelength of the wave as $\lambda_3$, we have

$l=\dfrac{3}{2} \lambda_3$


$\lambda_3 = \dfrac{2l}{3}$

Here we took only three standing waves with wavelengths,$\lambda_1$, $\lambda_2$ and $\lambda_3$. These wavelengths are called resonant wavelengths of the string. Actually there are infinite number of possible resonant wavelengths. We can find all the resonant wavelengths with the following equation:

$\lambda_n=\dfrac{2l}{n}$ where $n=1,2,3 ...$

By using $v=f \lambda$, we can write the frequencies of the waves:

$f_n=n \dfrac{v}{2l}$ where $n=1,2,3, ...$

These frequencies of the standing waves on a string are called the resonant frequencies or natural frequencies of the string.

The frequency corressponds to $n=1$, i.e., $f_1=\dfrac{v}{2l}$ is called the fundamental frequency. All other frequencies (except the fundamental) are called overtones. All the resonant frequencies corresponds to $n=1,2,3, ...$, i.e., $f_1,f_2,f_3, ...$ are called are called harmonics. $f_1$ is the first harmonic, $f_2$ is the second harmonic and so on.


If an oscillating system is set in motion, it would oscillate at its natural or resonant frequency,$(f_0)$. If an external force is applied at a certain frequency $(f)$ to make it oscillate, it would oscillate at the frequency of the external force. This is called forced oscillation. When in forced oscillation, if the frequency of the external force matches the natural frequency of the oscillating system, the amplitude of oscillation increases and the system oscillates with a greater (maximum) amplitude. This increase of the amplitude of oscillation at $f=f_0$ is called resonance. You can realize resonance in swings. For example, assume, a child is sitting on a swing. If you push the swing it will oscillate at some frequency, the natural frequency of the swing. Now if you keep pushing at the same frequency, you can see the amplitude (i.e, height of the child from the ground) of the oscillation of the swing increases tremendously.

Mechanical vs electromagnetic waves

All the mechanical waves such as sound waves require a medium to propagate. Sound cannot propagate in a vacuum. Light is another type of wave called electromagnetic wave. Electromagnetic waves do not require a medium to propagate. Visible light, x-rays and microwaves are electromagnetic waves.