Category : UPSC



1.           Characteristics of a Sound Wave


  • Frequency tells us how frequently an event occurs.
  • A violin and a flute may both be played at the same time in an orchestra. Both sounds travel through the same medium, that is, air and arrive at our ear at the same time. Both sounds travel at the same speed irrespective of the source. But the bounds we receive are different. This is due to the different characteristics associated with the sound. Pitch is one of the characteristics.
  • How the brain interprets the frequency of an emitted sound is called its pitch. The faster the vibration of the source, the higher is the frequency and the higher is the pitch.
  • A high pitch sound corresponds to more number of compressions and rarefactions passing a fixed point per unit time. Objects of different sizes and conditions vibrate at different frequencies to produce sounds of different pitch.
  • The magnitude of the maximum disturbance in the medium on either side of the mean value is called the amplitude of the wave- For sound its unit will be that of density or pressure. The loudness or softness of a sound is determined basically by its amplitude.
  • The amplitude of the sound wave depends upon the force with which an object is made to vibrate. If we strike a table lightly, we hear a soft sound because we produce a sound wave of less energy (amplitude). If we hit the table hard we hear a loud sound. Can you tell why? Loud sound can travel a larger distance as it is associated with higher energy.
  • A sound wave spreads out from its source. As it moves away from the source its amplitude as well as its loudness decreases.
  • The cavity or timber of sound is that characteristic which enables us to distinguish one sound from another having the same pitch and loudness. The sound which is more pleasant is said to be of a rich quality. A sound of single frequency is called a tone. The sound which is produced due to a mixture of several frequencies is called a note and is pleasant to listen to.
  • The speed of sound is defined as the distance which a point on a wave, such as a compression or a rarefaction, travels per unit time.                                
  • The amount of sound energy passing each second through unit area is called the intensity of sound. We sometimes use the terms "loudness" and "intensity" interchangeably, but they are not the same. Loudness is a measure of the response of the ear to the sound.
  • Even when two sounds are of equal intensity, we may hear one as louder than the other simply because our ear detects it better.
  • Sound is a mechanical wave and needs a material medium like air, water, steel etc. for its propagation. It cannot travel through vacuum.



2.           Loudness and Pitch



  • Loudness of sound is proportional to the square of the amplitude of the vibration producing the sound. For example, if the amplitude becomes twice, the loudness increases by a factor of 4. The loudness is expressed in a unit called decibel (dB). The following table gives some idea of the loudness of sound coming from various sources.
  • Normal breathing 10 dB, Soft whisper (at 5m) 30 dB, Normal conversation 60 dB, Busy traffic 70 dB and Average factory 80 dB. Above 80 dB the noise becomes physically painful.
  • The loudness of sound depends on its amplitude. When the amplitude of vibration is large, the sound produced is loud. When the amplitude is small, the sound produced is feeble.
  • Compare the sound of a baby with that of an adult. Is there any difference? Even if two sounds are equally loud, they differ in some way. For example :
  • The frequency determines the shrillness or pitch of a sound. If the frequency of vibration is higher we say that the sound is shrill and has a higher pitch. If the frequency of vibration is lower, we say that the sound has a lower pitch. For example, a drum vibrates with a low frequency. Therefore, it produces a low-pitched sound. On the other hand, a whistle has a high frequency and therefore, produces a sound of higher pitch. A bird makes a high-pitched sound whereas a lion makes a low-pitched roar. However, the roar of a lion is very loud while the sound of the bird is quite feeble.
  • The frequency of the voice of a child is higher than that of an adult? Usually the voice of a woman has a higher frequency and is shriller than that of a man.


3.           Speed of Sound in Different Media



  • The speed of sound in air is \[331\text{ }m{{s}^{-1}}\] at \[0{}^\circ C\] and \[344\text{ }m{{s}^{-1}}\] at \[22{}^\circ C\].
  • Sonic boom
  • When the speed of any object exceeds the speed of sound it is said to be travelling at supersonic speed. Bullets, jet aircrafts etc. often travel at supersonic speeds.
  • When a sound, producing source moves with a speed higher than that of sound, it produces shock waves in air. These shock waves carry a large amount of energy. The air pressure variation associated with this type of shock weaves produces a very sharp and loud sound called the "sonic boom".
  • The shock waves produced by a supersonic aircraft have enough energy to shatter glass and even damage buildings.


4.           Echo and Reverberation



  • If we shout or clap near a suitable reflecting object such as a tall building or a mountain, we will hear the same sound again a little later. This sound which we hear is called an echo.
  • The sensation of sound persists in our brain for about 0.1 s. To hear a distinct echo the time interval between the original sound and the reflected one must be at least 0.1 s. If we take the speed of sound to be 344 m/s at a given temperature, say at 22°C in air, the sound must go to the obstacle and reach back the ear of the listener on reflection after 0.1 s. Hence, the total distance covered by the sound from the point of generation to the reflecting surface and back should be at least (344 m/s) \[\times \]0.1 s = 34.4 m.
  • Thus, for hearing distinct echoes, the minimum distance of the obstacle from the source of sound must be half of this distance, that is, 17.2 m. This distance will change with the temperature of air.
  • Echoes may be heard more than once due to successive or multiple reflections. The rolling of thunder is due to the successive reflections of the sound from a number of reflecting surfaces, such as the clouds and the land.
  • A sound created in a big hall will persist by repeated reflection from the walls until it is reduced to a value where it is no longer audible. The repeated reflection that results in this persistence of sound is called reverberation.
  • In an auditorium or big hall excessive reverberation is highly undesirable. To reduce reverberation, the roof and walls of the auditorium are generally covered with sound- absorbent materials like compressed fibreboard, rough plaster or draperies. The seat materials are also selected on the basis of their sound absorbing properties.


5.           Uses of Multiple Reflection of Sound



  • Megaphones or loudhailers, horns, musical instruments such as trumpets and shehanais, are all designed to send sound in a particular direction without spreading it in all directions. In these instruments, a tube followed by a conical opening reflects sound successively to guide most of the sound waves from the source in the forward direction towards the audience.
  • Stethoscope is a medical instrument used for listening to sounds produced within the body, chiefly in the heart or lungs. In stethoscopes the sound of the patient's heartbeat reaches the doctor's ears by multiple reflection of sound.
  • Generally the ceilings of concert halls, conference halls and cinema halls are curved so that sound after reflection reaches all comers of the hall, as shown in. Sometimes a curved soundboard may be placed behind the stage so that the sound, after reflecting from the sound board, spreads evenly across the width of the hall.


6.           Range of Hearing



  • The fact is that sounds of frequencies less than about 20 vibrations per second (20 Hz) cannot be detected by the human ear. Such sounds are called inaudible. On the higher side, sounds of frequencies higher than about 20,000 vibrations per second (20 kHz) are also not audible to the human ear. Thus, for human ear, the range of audible frequencies is roughly from 20 to 20,000 Hz.
  • Some animals can hear sounds of frequencies higher than 20,000 Hz. Dogs have this ability. The police use high frequency whistles which dogs can hear but humans cannot.
  • The ultrasound equipment, familiar to us for investigating and tracking many medical problems, works at frequencies higher than 20,000 Hz.
  • The audible range of sound for human beings extends from about 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz (one Hz = one cycle/s). Children under the age of five and some animals, such as dogs can hear up to 25 kHz (1 kHz = 1,000 Hz). As people grow older their ears become less sensitive to higher frequencies.
  • Sounds of frequencies below 20 Hz are called infrasonic sound or infrasound. If we could hear infrasound we would hear the vibrations of a pendulum just as we hear the vibrations of the wings of a bee. Rhinoceroses communicate using infrasound of frequency as low as 5 Hz. Whales and elephants produce sound in the infrasound range.
  • It is observed that some animals get disturbed before earthquakes. Earthquakes produce low-frequency infrasound before the main shock waves begin which possibly alert the animals.
  • Frequencies higher than 20 kHz are called ultrasonic sound or ultrasound. Ultrasound is produced by dolphins, bats and porpoises.
  • Moths of certain families have very sensitive hearing equipment. These moths can hear the high frequency squeaks of the bat and know when a bat is flying nearby, and are able to escape capture. Rats also play games by producing ultrasound.


7.           Applications of Ultrasound



  • Ultrasounds are high frequency waves. Ultrasounds are able to travel along welldefmed paths even in the presence of obstacles. Ultrasounds are used extensively in industries and for medical purposes.
  • Ultrasound is generally used to clean parts located in hard-to-reach places, for example, spiral tube, odd shaped parts, electronic components etc. Objects to be cleaned are placed in a cleaning solution and ultrasonic waves are sent into the solution. Due to the high frequency, the particles of dust, grease and dirt get detached and drop out. The objects thus get thoroughly cleaned.
  • Ultrasounds can be used to detect cracks and flaws in metal blocks. Metallic components are generally used in construction of big structures like buildings, bridges, machines and also scientific equipment. The cracks or holes inside the metal blocks, which are invisible from outside reduces the strength of the structure. Ultrasonic waves are allowed to pass through the metal block and detectors are used to detect the transmitted waves. If there is even a small defect, the ultrasound gets reflected back indicating the presence of the flaw or defect.
  • Ordinary sound of longer wavelengths cannot be used for such purpose as it will bend around the comers of the defective location and enter the detector.
  • Ultrasonic waves are made to reflect from various parts of the heart and form the image of the heart. This technique is called 'echocardiography9.
  • Ultrasound scanner is an instrument which uses ultrasonic waves for getting images of internal organs of the human body. A doctor may image the patient's organs such as the liver, gall bladder, uterus, kidney, etc. It helps the doctor to detect abnormalities, such as stones in the gall bladder and kidney or tumours in different organs.
  • In this technique the ultrasonic waves travel through the tissues of the body and get reflected from a region where there is a change of tissue density. These waves are then converted into electrical signals that are used to generate images of the organ. These images are then displayed on a monitor or printed on a film. This technique is called 'ultrasonography’. Ultrasonography is also used for examination of the foetus during pregnancy to detect congenial defects and growth abnormalities.
  • Ultrasound may be employed to break small 'stones' formed in the kidneys into fine grains. These grains later get flushed out with urine.


8.           Sonar



  • The acronym SONAR stands for Sound Navigation and Ranging. Sonar is a device that uses ultrasonic waves to measure the distance, direction and speed of underwater objects. Sonar consists of a transmitter and a detector and is installed in a boat or a ship.
  • The transmitter produces and transmits ultrasonic waves. These waves travel through water and after striking the object on the seabed, get reflected back and are sensed by the detector. The detector converts the ultrasonic waves into electrical signals which are appropriately interpreted.
  • The distance of the object that reflected the sound wave can be calculated by knowing the speed of sound in water and the time interval between transmission and reception of the ultrasound.
  • Time interval between transmission and reception of ultrasound signal be t and the speed of sound through seawater be v. The total distance, 2 d travelled by the ultrasound is then, \[(2\,\,d\,=v\times t)\] the above method is called echo-ranging.
  • The sonar technique is used to determine the depth of the sea and to locate underwater hills, valleys, submarine, icebergs, sunken ship etc.
  • Bats search out prey and fly in dark night by emitting and detecting reflections of ultrasonic waves. The high-pitched ultrasonic squeaks of the bat are reflected from the obstacles or prey and returned to bat's ear. The nature of reflections tells the bat where the obstacle or prey is and what it is like. Porpoises also use ultrasound for navigation and location of food in the dark.


9.           Structure of Human Ear



  • The outer ear is called 'pinna'. It collects the sound from the surroundings. The collected sound passes through the auditory canal.
  • At the end of the auditory canal there is a thin membrane called the ear drum or tympanic membrane. When a compression of the medium reaches the eardrum the pressure on the outside of the membrane increases and forces the eardrum inward. Similarly, the eardrum moves outward when a rarefaction reaches it. In this way the eardrum vibrates.
  • The vibrations are amplified several times by three bones (the hammer, anvil and stirrup) in the middle ear. The middle ear transmits the amplified pressure variations received from the sound wave to the inner ear. In the inner ear, the pressure variations are turned into electrical signals by the cochlea. These electrical signals are sent to the brain via the auditory nerve, and the brain interprets them as sound.


10.        Doppler Effect



  • It is an everyday experience that the pitch (or frequency) of the whistle of a fast moving train decreases as it recedes away. When we approach a stationary source of sound with high speed, the pitch of the sound heard appears to be higher than that of the source. As the observer recedes away from the source, the observed pitch (or frequency) becomes lower than that of the source.
  • The change in frequency caused by a moving object due to Doppler effect is used to measure their velocities in diverse areas such as military, medical science, astrophysics, etc. It is also used by police to check over-speeding of vehicles.
  • A sound wave or electromagnetic wave of known frequency is sent towards a moving object. Some part of the wave is reflected from the object and its frequency is detected by the monitoring station. This change in frequency is called Doppler shift
  • It is used at airports to guide aircraft, and in the military to detect enemy aircraft. Astrophysicists use it to measure the velocities of stars.
  • Doctors use it to study heart beats and blood flow in different parts of the body. Here they use ulltrasonic waves, and in common practice, it is called sonography. Ultrasonic waves enter the body of the person, some of them are reflected back, and give information about motion of blood and pulsation of heart valves, as well as pulsation of the heart of the foetus. In the case of heart, the picture generated is called echocardiogram.


11.        Important Facts



  • Not all waves require a medium for their propagation. We know that Sight waves can travel through vacuum. The most familiar type of waves such as waves on a string, water waves, sound waves, seismic waves, etc. is the so-called mechanical waves. These waves require a medium for propagation, they cannot propagate through vacuum.
  • Electromagnetic waves do not necessarily require a medium - they can travel through vacuum. Light, radiowaves, X-rays, are all electromagnetic waves.
  • We have seen that motion of mechanical waves involves oscillations of constituents of the medium. If the constituents of the medium oscillate perpendicular to the direction of wave propagation, we call the wave a transverse wave. If they oscillate along the direction of wave propagation, we call the wave a longitudinal wave.
  • Longitudinal waves is the most familiar example of the propagation of sound waves.
  • Mechanical waves are related to the elastic properties of the medium. In transverse waves, the constituents of the medium oscillate perpendicular to wave motion causing change is shape. That is, each element of the medium in subject to shearing stress. Solids and strings have shear modulus, that is they sustain shearing stress. Fluids have no shape of their own - they yield to shearing stress. This is why transverse waves are possible in solids and strings (under tension) but not in fluids.
  • Thus a steel bar possessing both bulk and sheer elastic moduli can propagate longitudinal as well as transverse waves. But air can propagate only longitudinal pressure waves (sound). When a medium such as a steel bar propagates both longitudinal and transverse waves, their speeds can be different since they arise from different elastic moduli.



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