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        Science | Acoustics

Behavior of Sound Waves

Like light waves and other waves, sound waves are reflected, refracted, and diffracted, and exhibit interference.


Sound is constantly being reflected off many different surfaces. Most of the time the reflected sound is not noticed, because two identical sounds that reach the human ear less than 1/15 of a second apart cannot be distinguished as separate sounds. When the reflected sound is heard separately, it is called an echo.

Sound is reflected from a surface at the same angle at which it strikes the surface. This fact makes it possible to focus sound by means of curved reflecting surfaces in the same way that curved mirrors can be used to focus light. It also accounts for the effects of so-called whispering galleries, rooms in which a word whispered at one point can be heard distinctly at some other point fairly far away, though it cannot be heard anywhere else in the room. (Statuary Hall of the United States Capitol is an example.) Reflection is also used to focus sound in a megaphone and when calling through cupped hands.

The reflection of sound can pose a serious problem in concert halls and auditoriums. In a poorly designed hall, a speaker's first word may reverberate (echo repeatedly) for several seconds, so that the listeners may hear all the words of a sentence echoing at the same time. Music can be similarly distorted. Such problems can usually be corrected by covering reflecting surfaces with sound-absorbing materials such as draperies or acoustical tile. Clothing also absorbs sound; for this reason reverberation is greater in an empty hall than in one filled with people. All these sound-absorbing materials are porous; sound waves entering the tiny air-filled spaces bounce around in them until their energy is spent. They are, in effect, trapped.

The reflection of sound is used by some animals, notably bats and toothed whales, for echolocation—locating, and in some cases identifying, objects through the sense of hearing rather than the sense of sight. Bats and toothed whales emit bursts of sound of frequencies far beyond the upper limits of human hearing, as high as 200,000 Hz in the case of whales. Sounds with short wavelengths are reflected even from very small objects. A bat can unerringly locate and catch even a mosquito in total darkness. Sonar is an artificial form of echolocation.


When a wave passes from one material to another at an angle, it usually changes speed, causing the wave front to bend. The refraction of sound can be demonstrated in a physics laboratory by using a lens-shaped balloon filled with carbon dioxide to bring sound waves to a focus.


When sound waves pass around an obstacle or through an opening in an obstacle, the edge of the obstacle or the opening acts as a secondary sound source, sending out waves of the same frequency and wavelength (but of lower intensity) as the original source. The spreading out of sound waves from the secondary source is called diffraction. Because of this phenomenon, sound can be heard around corners despite the fact that sound waves generally travel in a straight line.


Whenever waves interact, interference occurs. For sound waves the phenomenon is perhaps best understood by thinking in terms of the compressions and rarefactions of the two waves as they arrive at some point. When the waves are in phase so that their compressions and rarefactions coincide, they reinforce each other (constructive interference). When they are out of phase, so that the compressions of one coincide with the rarefactions of the other, they tend to weaken or even cancel each other (destructive interference). The interaction between the two waves produces a resultant wave.

In auditoriums, destructive interference between sound from the stage and sound reflected from other parts of the hall can create dead spots in which both volume and clarity of sound are poor. Such interference can be reduced by use of sound-absorbing materials on reflecting surfaces. On the other hand, interference can improve an auditorium's acoustical qualities. This is done by arranging the reflecting surfaces in such a way that the level of sound is actually increased in the area in which the audience sits.

Interference between two waves of nearly but not quite equal frequencies produces a tone of alternately increasing and decreasing intensity, because the two waves continually fall in and out of phase. The pulsations heard are called beats. Piano tuners make use of this effect, adjusting the tone of a string against that of a standard tuning fork until beats can no longer be heard.