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Physically, sound consists of a series of small variations in pressure caused by
the movement of molecules in a propagation medium, which can be a gas, liquid,
or solid. It is impossible to have sound in a vacuum. When talking about speech
sounds, the medium that first comes to mind is, of course, air.
The displacements (vibrations) of air particles, which occur very rapidly one
after another, cause the eardrum to move, and are then perceived as sounds. The
disturbances in the surrounding air do not occur instantaneously throughout all the
air around the source of sound; instead, they spread outwards, like ripples on a pond
(and thus there is necessarily a short delay from the moment when the first
disturbance is made to the time it reaches our ears).
The speed at which sound travels depends on the medium; in air, the sound
waves travel at about 340 metres per second. We use the term frequency to refer to
the number of repetitions of variations in air pressure that occur in a single second.
Formerly expressed in cycles per second (cps), the common scale today is that of
Hertz (abbreviated to Hz), which unit is named after the German physicist Heinrich
Rudolph Hertz (1857-1894), who was the first to produce electromagnetic waves
artificially. The pitch of a sound is related to the frequency; the greater the number
of repetitions of variations in air pressure occurring in a second the higher the pitch,
and vice versa. The loudness, on the other hand, depends on the amplitude – i.e.
the size or intensity - of the variations in air pressure.