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The Mathematics of Sound:
The Basic Physics Behind Beautiful Music
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 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 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
Table of Contents
p. 4 -------Abstract
p. 4 -------Intro
p. 4 -------Body
p. 11 -----Conclusion
p. 11 -----Homework and Solutions
p. 12 -----Sources
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
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
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,
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
2. If eight cycles of a sound wave occur in 10 milliseconds, what is the frequency of
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
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.
[Peter] Berg, Richard E. and David G. Stork. The Physics of Sound. (United States of
America: Prentice Hall, 2005).
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