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....

Waves Bounded on Both Sides

In the example of the previous section, it was theoretically true that a pulse would be trapped permanently in the middle medium, but that pulse was not central to our discussion, and in any case it was weakening severely with each partial reflection. Now consider a guitar string. At its ends it is tied to the body of the instrument itself, and since the body is very massive, the behavior of the waves when they reach the end of the string can be understood in the same way as if the actual guitar string was attached on the ends to strings that were extremely massive. Reflections are most intense when the two media are very dissimilar. Because the wave speed in the body is so radically different from the speed in the string, we should expect nearly 100% reflection.

We model a guitar string attached to the guitar's body at both ends as a light-weight string attached to extremely heavy strings at its ends.

Although this may seem like a rather bizarre physical model of the actual guitar string, it already tells us something interesting about the behavior of a guitar that we would not otherwise have understood. The body, far from being a passive frame for attaching the strings to, is actually the exit path for the wave energy in the strings. With every reflection, the wave pattern on the string loses a tiny fraction of its energy, which is then conducted through the body and out into the air. (The string has too little cross-section to make sound waves efficiently by itself.) By changing the properties of the body, moreover, we should expect to have an effect on the manner in which sound escapes from the instrument. This is clearly demonstrated by the electric guitar, which has an extremely massive, solid wooden body. Here the dissimilarity between the two wave media is even more pronounced, with the result that wave energy leaks out of the string even more slowly. This is why an electric guitar with no electric pickup can hardly be heard at all, and it is also the reason why notes on an electric guitar can be sustained for longer than notes on an acoustic guitar.

If we initially create a disturbance on a guitar string, how will the reflections behave? In reality, the finger or pick will give the string a triangular shape before letting it go, and we may think of this triangular shape as a very broad "dent" in the string which will spread out in both directions. For simplicity, however, let's just imagine a wave pattern that initially consists of a single, narrow pulse traveling up the neck, (b). After reflection from the top end, it is inverted, (d). Now something interesting happens: figure (f ) is identical to figure (b). After two reflections, the pulse has been inverted twice and has changed direction twice. It is now back where it started. The motion is periodic. This is why a guitar produces sounds that have a definite sensation of pitch.

Self-Check Notice that from (b) to (f), the pulse has passed by every point on the string exactly twice. This means that the total distance it has traveled equals 2L, where L is the length of the string. Given this fact, what are the period and frequency of the sound it produces, expressed in terms of L and v, the velocity of the wave?
Answer The period is the time required to travel a distance 2L at speed v, T=2L/v. The frequency is f=1/T=v/2L.

Note that if the waves on the string obey the principle of superposition, then the velocity must be independent of amplitude, and the guitar will produce the same pitch regardless of whether it is played loudly or softly. In reality, waves on a string obey the principle of superposition approximately, but not exactly. The guitar, like just about any acoustic instrument, is a little out of tune when played loudly. (The effect is more pronounced for wind instruments than for strings, but wind players are able to compensate for it.)

Now there is only one hole in our reasoning. Suppose we somehow arrange to have an initial setup consisting of two identical pulses heading toward each other, as in figure (g). They will pass through each other, undergo a single inverting reflection, and come back to a configuration in which their positions have been exactly interchanged. This means that the period of vibration is half as long. The frequency is twice as high.


This might seem like a purely academic possibility, since nobody actually plays the guitar with two picks at once! But in fact it is an example of a very general fact about waves that are bounded on both sides. A mathematical theorem called Fourier's theorem states that any wave can be created by superposing sine waves. The figure on the left shows how even by using only four sine waves with appropriately chosen amplitudes, we can arrive at a sum which is a decent approximation to the realistic triangular shape of a guitar string being plucked. The one-hump wave, in which half a wavelength fits on the string, will behave like the single pulse we originally discussed. We call its frequency fo. The two-hump wave, with one whole wavelength, is very much like the two-pulse example. For the reasons discussed above, its frequency is 2fo. Similarly, the three-hump and fourhump waves have frequencies of 3fo and 4fo.

Theoretically we would need to add together infinitely many such wave patterns to describe the initial triangular shape of the string exactly, although the amplitudes required for the very high frequency parts would be very small, and an excellent approximation could be achieved with as few as ten waves.

We thus arrive at the following very general conclusion. Whenever a wave pattern exists in a medium bounded on both sides by media in which the wave speed is very different, the motion can be broken down into the motion of a (theoretically infinite) series of sine waves, with frequencies fo, 2fo, 3fo, ... Except for some technical details, to be discussed below, this analysis applies to a vast range of sound-producing systems, including the air column within the human vocal tract. Because sounds composed of this kind of pattern of frequencies are so common, our ear-brain system has evolved so as to perceive them as a single, fused sensation of tone.

Musical applications

Many musicians claim to be able to identify individually several of the frequencies above the first one, called overtones or harmonics, but they are kidding themselves. In reality, the overtone series has two important roles in music, neither of which depends on this fictitious ability to "hear out" the individual overtones.

Graphs of loudness versus frequency for the vowel "ah," sung as three different musical notes. G is consonant with D, since every overtone of G that is close to an overtone of D (*) is at exactly the same frequency. G and C# are dissonant together, since some of the overtones of G (x) are close to, but not right on top of, those of C#.

First, the relative strengths of the overtones is an important part of the personality of a sound, called its timbre (rhymes with "amber"). The characteristic tone of the brass instruments, for example, is a sound that starts out with a very strong harmonic series extending up to very high frequencies, but whose higher harmonics die down drastically as the attack changes to the sustained portion of the note.

Second, although the ear cannot separate the individual harmonics of a single musical tone, it is very sensitive to clashes between the overtones of notes played simultaneously, i.e. in harmony. We tend to perceive a combination of notes as being dissonant if they have overtones that are close but not the same. Roughly speaking, strong overtones whose frequencies differ by more than 1% and less than 10% cause the notes to sound dissonant. It is important to realize that the term "dissonance" is not a negative one in music. No matter how long you search the radio dial, you will never hear more than three seconds of music without at least one dissonant combination of notes. Dissonance is a necessary ingredient in the creation of a musical cycle of tension and release. Musically knowledgeable people do not usually use the word "dissonant" as a criticism of music, and if they do, what they are really saying is that the dissonance has been used in a clumsy way, or without providing any contrast between dissonance and consonance.

Last Update: 2009-06-21