UPSC Physics Sound Sound


Category : UPSC




  • Sound is a form of energy and like all other energies, sound is not visible to us. It produces a sensation of hearing when it reaches our ears. Sound cannot travel through vacuum.


  • Sound is produced due to vibration of different objects. The matter or substance through which sound is transmitted is called a medium. It can be solid, liquid or gas. Sound moves through a medium from the point of generation to the listener.


  • In longitudinal wave the individual particles of the medium move in a direction parallel to the direction of propagation of the disturbance. The particles do not move from one place to another but they simply oscillate back and forth about their position of rest. This is exactly how a sound wave propagates, hence sound waves are longitudinal waves. Sound travels as successive compressions and rarefactions m the medium. In sound propagation, it is the energy of the sound that travels and not the particles of the medium.


  • There is also another type of wave, called a transverse wave. In a transverse wave particles do not oscillate along the line of wave propagation but oscillate up and down about their mean position as the wave travels. Thus a transverse wave is the one in which the individual particles of the medium move about their mean positions in a direction perpendicular to the direction of wave propagation. Light is a transverse wave but for light, the oscillations are not of the medium particles or their pressure or density − it is not a mechanical wave.


  • To and fro motion of an object is known as vibration. This motion is also called oscillatory motion.


  • Amplitude and frequency are two important properties of any sound.


  • 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.


  • The change in density from one maximum value to the minimum value and again to the maximum value makes one complete oscillation.
  • The distance between two consecutive compressions or two consecutive rarefaction is called the wavelength
  • The time taken by the wave for one complete oscillation of the density or pressure of the medium is called the time period, T.


  • The number of complete oscillations per unit time is called the frequency. The frequency is expressed in hertz (Hz).


  • Larger the amplitude of vibration, louder is the sound. Higher the frequency of vibration, the higher is the pitch, and shriller is the sound.


  • 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.


  • A sound of single frequency is called a tone whereas a sound of multiple frequencies is called a note. Of the several frequencies present in a note, the sound of the lowest frequency is called the fundamental tone. Besides the fundamental, other tones present in a note are known as overtones. Of the overtones, those which have their frequencies simple multiple of fundamental frequency, are known as harmonics. All harmonics are overtone but all overtones are not harmonics.


  • Sound propagates through a medium at a finite speed. The speed of sound depends on the properties of the medium through which it travels. The speed of sound in a medium depends also on temperature and pressure of the medium. The speed of sound decreases when we go from solid to gaseous state. In any medium as we increase the temperature the speed of sound increases. Experiment shows that the velocity of sound in air at 0 0C is about 332 meters per second.


  • The velocity of sound through a gas is inversely proportional to the square root of the density of the gas.


  • The law of reflection of sound states that the directions in which the sound is incident and reflected make equal angles with the normal to the reflecting surface and the three lie in the same plane.


  • 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 second. To hear a distinct echo, the time interval between the original sound and the reflected one must be at least 0.1 second. If we take the speed of sound to be 344 m/s at a given temperature, say at 22 0C in air, the sound must go to the obstacle and reach back the ear of the listener on reflection after 0.1s. Hence, the total distance covered by the sound from the point of generation to the reflecting surface and back should be at least Thus, for hearing distinct echoes, the minimum distance of the obstacle from the source of sound must behalf 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 phenomenon of prolongation of sound due to successive reflections of sound from surrounding objects is called reverberation.


  • 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.


  • The audible range of sound for human beings extends from about 20 Hz to 20000 Hz (one Hz = one cycle/s). Children under the age of five and some animals, such as dogs can hear up to 25 kHz


  • Sounds of frequencies below 20 Hz are called infrasonic sound or infrasound. 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.


  • 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.


  • Ultrasonic waves are made to reflect from various parts of the heart and form the image of the heart. This technique is called ‘echocardiography’.


  • 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 tumors 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’.


  • 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. Let the time interval between transmission and reception of ultrasound signal be t and the speed of sound through seawater be v. The total distance, 2d travelled by the ultrasound is then, 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.


  • Again if the speed of any substance, specially of an air-craft, be more than the speed of sound in air, then the speed of the substance is called supersonic speed. The ratio of the speed of a body and that of sound in air is, however, called the Mach number of the body. If the Mach number of a body is more than 1, it is clear that the body has supersonic speed.

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NCERT Summary - Sound
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