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**The Mathematics of Sound:
**

The Basic Physics Behind Beautiful Music

Amy Obarski

Peter Volpert

Marissa D’Ambrosio

#

BIOGRAPHIES

Amy

Amy Obarski is a freshman cinema production student at

Ithaca College. She most recently hails from Oak Ridge,

Tennessee, but has lived in various other states along the

East Coast. On campus, she enjoys being a DJ for one of the

college’s two stations, VIC, and can be found most frequently

in the recreation room playing billiards. She also enjoys

playing piano and guitar and is currently teaching herself the violin. For the 2010

summer, she will be a film counselor at Tennessee’s Governor’s School for the Arts and

will also be interning in NYC for Elsewhere films.

Marissa

Marissa D’Ambrosio is a freshman Music Education major

with a concentration on Bassoon. She is 19 years old and

hails from Wantagh NY, located on Long Island. She is the

youngest of 3 girls in her family. She is involved in NRHH

here at Ithaca, the National Residence Hall Honorary. She

will be Vice President of this organization next year. She is

learning as much as she can here at Ithaca in order to become the best teacher she can

be after graduation. She is looking forward to teaching immensely.

Peter

Peter Volpert is a freshman Sound Recording major with a concentration in cello in

Ithaca’s school of music. He was born in the suburbs of Philadelphia and has lived there

$

his entire life. His family, having half of its

relatives in South Korea and half in Germany,

travels a lot. His hobbies include playing soccer

as well as everything musical, whether it is

listening, playing, or recording. His band at home

once called ‘The Rasta Fighters in the Name of Jah aka the JahMen’ (jammin’…get it) is

now called the Organik Jamband, and he enjoys playing gigs with them over the

summer. Peter hopes to become a Recording Engineer and/or producer after his

college career.

Table of Contents

p. 4 -------Abstract

p. 4 -------Intro

p. 4 -------Body

p. 11 -----Conclusion

p. 11 -----Homework and Solutions

p. 12 -----Sources

%

Abstract

The phenomenon of sound is an incredible production of our universe. Like everything

around us, sound is deeply rooted in science, physics, and thus mathematics. We have

attempted to analyze sound as both a perceptual as well as a physical thing, and relate

it to music and the mathematics of ratios. By realizing

Introduction

Amy explored how the ways sound can be analyzed, physically and perceptually, as

well as how the physical components of sound, frequency and wavelength, are related

to the mathematics of ratios. Peter and Marissa then took these concepts and analyzed

how they become apparent in music by observing how standing waves in both string

and wind instruments actual instruments are dictated by ratios.

The Mathematics of Sound: the Physics behind beautiful music.

There are two distinct ways in which sound is analyzed: physically and

perceptually. The physical aspects consist of amplitude, frequency and phase while the

perceptual aspects include loudness and pitch. Human hearing is based upon tiny hair

follicles that reside inside the eardrum. When a sound is made, the alterations in air

pressure cause those hairs to move. Those deviations from high to low pressure are

referred to as frequency, which is measured in Hertz (Hz), or cycles per second. The

human ear can process frequencies between 20 and 20,000 Hz. Amplitude thusly refers

to the height of the sound wave, which can be represented in the following graph.

The frequency, since the wave occurs six times in a

ten-millisecond period, is 600 Hz, while the

amplitude has a range of 100 units. Amplitude and

&

frequency are inversely related. Amplitude has also a much broader range in relation to

human hearing. Amplitude refers to the feel of sound that can range from extremely

short, pulsing waves, to the “threshold of pain” that is 10 million times that level.

Phase, in relation to sound, essentially relates to time. If two sinusoids (sound waves)

are compared in comparison to each other, phase refers to how the two sinusoids are

related at a given time. The following graph demonstrates this idea of phase in that,

while the two waves have the same amplitude and frequency, their phase difference is

based on their given placement in time on the period.

The connections between the physical properties of

sound and its perceptual properties occur through

frequency and amplitude, which ultimately refer to pitch

and loudness, respectively. However, these relations cannot be expressed in a 1:1 ratio.

If the amplitude of a sound is increased in equal increments, the loudness of a sound

will increase in steps that are much smaller than those of the amplitude. This property

applies to frequency and pitch as well. Mathematically, amplitude/loudness is expressed

in a unit called Decibels (dB). For humans, 0.0 dB is the normal loudness for hearing

while 130 dB refers to sounds that cause unbearable pain.

The way sounds are expressed can either be simple or complex. The sinusoidal

method, as evidenced in the graph on the bottom left, expresses sound in a simple way.

However, not all sounds occur as waves. The square wave (to the lower right) can be

described as a combination of a multitude of sinusoidal waves.

'

So ultimately, the right graph is just the left graph copied thousands of times over and

can be expressed as a summation of the left graph. The aspects of the square wave

ultimately relate to harmonics and the phenomenon of F0.

The nature of harmonics and fundamental frequencies is made most apparent by

the phenomenon of the Standing Wave. A Standing Wave is some wave that is

oscillating at a very specific frequency so that it appears to “stand” in one place. Though

sound can also create a Standing Wave, let us

for our initial purposes consider a Standing

Wave as string attached between two fixed

points, as shown in the image. The Standing

Wave occurs in a stationary medium because waves are traveling in opposite directions

on the same string and thus are interacting, or interfering, with each other. The above

Standing Wave is oscillating at the Fundamental Frequency, as shown by the only two

nodes being at the fixed ends, and there only being a single anti-node, or place where

the string oscillates the furthest distance.

The Fundamental Frequency, also known as the Natural Frequency (these terms

are interchangeable), will be explained in greater detail in a few moments. First, I must

explain Resonance, a key concept to understand when dealing with harmonics and

ratios. Resonance is the condition in which an object or system is subjected to an

oscillating force having a frequency close to that system’s Natural Frequency. When

(

considering the Standing Wave, the string between the two fixed points is the system,

and the oscillating force in the case of the cello would be the finger that plucks it or the

bow that is drawn across it.

Next I must explain how the physical attributes of sound, Frequency and

Wavelength, relate to each other mathematically, as this relationship is essential to

understanding the ratios of sound waves as well as how we perceive the changing of

pitch. The equation is thus:

With basic mathematical knowledge, we can see that Frequency and Wavelength are

inversely related, the coefficient between them being the speed of sound, or 343 meters

per second in 20º Celsius air.

With this background knowledge we can dive deeper into the mathematics of the

Standing Wave and its subsequent harmonics. Refer back to the image of the Standing

Wave on page 6; the system is oscillating at its Natural Frequency. That frequency is

identified as the frequency that causes the string to appear as exactly half of one

wavelength. With the knowledge that the distance from one fixed end to the other is L,

let us relate back to the equation relating frequency and wavelength. All we need to do

is rearrange the equation with basic algebra skills and then substitute 2L for

)

wavelength, since we know that half of a wavelength is the distance from the two nodes,

or L. We then get:

Why this relates to ratios will become apparent momentarily.

The subsequent harmonics of a Standing Wave occur when the string oscillates

at frequencies at specific intervals above the Fundamental. Observe a Standing Wave

oscillating at the Fundamental

Frequency, and the 2 subsequent

harmonics. One can see that for the

second harmonic, another half-

wavelength has been fit between the

two fixed points, which again have a

distance of L between them.

Therefore, the wavelength now equals

L, as opposed to 2L. If we plug it in to the Frequency and Wavelength equation we get:

The equation shows us that the frequency that the system must oscillate at to obtain the

second harmonic is exactly double the Fundamental Frequency. If we continue with this

concept to the third harmonic, the wavelength is two-thirds of L and thus:

*

One can notice that with each subsequent harmonic, the frequency of the oscillation

must increase by exactly one multiple of the Fundamental Frequency.

This phenomenon of resonance is clearly deeply rooted in the mathematical

concept of ratios. Whenever the length of the string is divided into any number of equal

lengths (which becomes half of the wavelength), as dictated by the nodes, the string

resonates harmonically. This fact, however, is not true for all kinds of Standing Waves.

As demonstrated by the cello, the string between two fixed ends acts in this manner.

When an open string is played, the string is oscillating at its Fundamental Frequency.

When a finger is placed exactly in the middle of the string but is not pressed down all

the way, the second harmonic is demonstrated. The finger essentially creates a node

right in the middle of the string. Based on that knowledge we know that the second

harmonic is created. However, perceptually we can also prove it. In the second

harmonic, the wavelength is half of the open string’s wavelength. This means that the

frequency doubles, as frequency and wavelength are inversely related. As frequency

doubles, the pitch that we perceive sounds one octave higher; indeed the second

harmonic on the cello does sound an octave higher than the open string. Therefore, we

can see how deeply ratios are at the root of harmonics.

The harmonics of an open-closed pipe is slightly different than a string

instrument. Most wind instruments, brass and woodwinds,

are considered open-closed pipes. There are some

exceptions, such as the flute. When playing the flute, you

blow across the tone hole in the head joint. This allows the

air to escape from the head joint

!+

and the end of the flute. However, the bassoon is an open-closed pipe. This is

apparent because the reed serves as the closed end, not allowing air to escape and the

bell serves as the open end. Most wind instruments have only one end where air

escapes, making it an open-closed pipe.

The harmonics of an open-closed pipe are uneven, unlike the string. The

fundamental frequency of an open-closed pipe is ! of a wavelength or ! ". This looks

like:

Just as explained for strings, as you increase a harmonic, you add # the wavelength.

So in this case, you would

double what you see above and

add it to the above image,

resulting in $ " for the third

harmonic, first overtone.

Notice that both images have a node at one end and an anti-node at the other. This

demonstrates that one end remains fixed and the other remains open, hence the open-

closed pipe. This is the first harmonic of a wind instrument. This is seen as an uneven

harmonic because you can never have a complete waveform due to the beginning

fundamental frequency. The fifth harmonic also adds half of a wavelength, resulting in

5/4 ". Again, we see that

there is an anti-node and a

!!

node on either end, keeping the open-closed pipe. This also shows the uneven

harmonic by skipping the complete wavelength. This results in the fifth harmonic,

second overtone.

Ultimately, the physics of sound is all around us. In our everyday life, we

encounter simple and complex sounds, standing waves and beautiful harmonies.

Without understanding these vital concepts of sound, our world would never understand

music, and therefore never be the same.

Homework and Solutions

1. How do we perceive frequency? How do we perceive Amplitude?

a. Frequency is perceived as pitch; Amplitude is perceived as

loudness.

2. If eight cycles of a sound wave occur in 10 milliseconds, what is the frequency of

the tone?

a. 800 Hz. Hz is cycles per second. There are 1000 milliseconds per

second, and 1000 milliseconds /10 milliseconds = 100 thus we must

multiply the eight cycles by 100 to get Hz.

3. If the sound is increasing in pitch, what is happening to the wavelength?

a. The Wavelength is getting smaller. If pitch is increasing, frequency is

increasing. Frequency and Wavelength are inversely related: if one

goes up, the other goes down.

4. If a sound wave has a frequency of 1000 Hz at 20 degrees Celsius, what is the

wavelength?

!#

a. 0.343 meters. V=F ! ! ! = V/F = 343/1000

5. Given an open-closed pipe that is 1.0 meter in length, what is the wavelength if

the sound is oscillating at the second harmonic?

a. Wavelength is equal to L, which is 1.

Sources

[Amy] http://www.asel.udel.edu/speech/tutorials/acoustics/time_domain.html

[Peter] Berg, Richard E. and David G. Stork. The Physics of Sound. (United States of

America: Prentice Hall, 2005).

[Marissa]

http://dev.physicslab.org/Document.aspx?doctype=3&filename=WavesSound_Resonan

cePipes.xml

tpap

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