Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Energy in Vibrations

One way of describing the collapse of the bridge is that the bridge kept taking energy from the steadily blowing wind and building up more and more energetic vibrations. In this section, we discuss the energy contained in a vibration, and in the subsequent sections we will move on to the loss of energy and the adding of energy to a vibrating system, all with the goal of understanding the important phenomenon of resonance.

Going back to our standard example of a mass on a spring, we find that there are two forms of energy involved: the potential energy stored in the spring and the kinetic energy of the moving mass. We may start the system in motion either by hitting the mass to put in kinetic energy by pulling it to one side to put in potential energy. Either way, the subsequent behavior of the system is identical. It trades energy back and forth between kinetic and potential energy. (We are still assuming there is no friction, so that no energy is converted to heat, and the system never runs down.)

The most important thing to understand about the energy content of vibrations is that the total energy is proportional to the square of the amplitude. Although the total energy is constant, it is instructive to consider two specific moments in the motion of the mass on a spring as examples. When the mass is all the way to one side, at rest and ready to reverse directions, all its energy is potential. We have already seen that the potential energy stored ed in a spring equals 1/2kx2, so the energy is proportional to the square of the amplitude. Now consider the moment when the mass is passing through the equilibrium point at x=0. At this point it has no potential energy, but it does have kinetic energy. The velocity is proportional to the amplitude of the motion, and the kinetic energy, 1/2mv2 , is proportional to the square of the velocity, so again we find that the energy is proportional to the square of the amplitude. The reason for singling out these two points is merely instructive; proving that energy is proportional to A2 at any point would suffice to prove that energy is proportional to A2 in general, since the energy is constant.

Are these conclusions restricted to the mass-on-a-spring example? No. We have already seen that F=-kx is a valid approximation for any vibrating object, as long as the amplitude is small. We are thus left with a very general conclusion: the energy of any vibration is approximately proportional to the square of the amplitude, provided that the amplitude is small.

Water in a U-tube.

The range of energies of sound waves.

We are only studying vibrations right now, not waves, so we are not yet concerned with how a sound wave works, or how the energy gets to us through the air. Note that because of the huge range of energies that our ear can sense, it would not be reasonable to have a sense of loudness that was additive. Consider, for instance, the following three levels of sound:

barely audible:  gentle wind
quiet conversation:  105 times more energy than the wind
heavy metal concert:  1012 times more energy than the wind

In terms of addition and subtraction, the difference between the wind and the quiet conversation is nothing compared to the difference between the quiet conversation and the heavy metal concert. Evolution wanted our sense of hearing to be able to encompass all these sounds without collapsing the bottom of the scale so that anything softer than the crack of doom would sound the same. So rather than making our sense of loudness additive, mother nature made it multiplicative. We sense the difference between the wind and the quiet conversation as spanning a range of about 5/12 as much as the whole range from the wind to the heavy metal concert. Although a detailed discussion of the decibel scale is not relevant here, the basic point to note about the decibel scale is that it is logarithmic. The zero of the decibel scale is close to the lower limit of human hearing, and adding 1 unit to the decibel measurement corresponds to multiplying the energy level (or actually the power per unit area) by a certain factor.

Last Update: 2009-06-21