Acoustic wave

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Acoustic waves (also known as sound waves) are a type of longitudinal waves that propagate by means of adiabatic compression and decompression. Longitudinal waves are waves that have the same direction of vibration as their direction of travel. Important quantities for describing acoustic waves are sound pressure, particle velocity, particle displacement and sound intensity. Acoustic waves travel with the speed of sound which depends on the medium they're passing through.

Wave properties[edit]

Acoustic waves are longitudinal waves that exhibit phenomena like diffraction, reflection and interference. Sound waves however don't have any polarization since they oscillate along the same direction as they move.

Acoustic wave equation[edit]

The acoustic wave equation describes the propagation of sound waves. The acoustic wave equation for sound pressure in one dimension is given by


is sound pressure in Pa
is particle displacement in m
is speed of sound in m/s
is time in s

The wave equation for particle velocity has the same shape and is given by


is particle velocity in m/s

For lossy media, more intricate models need to be applied in order to take into account frequency-dependent attenuation and phase speed. Such models include acoustic wave equations that incorporate fractional derivative terms, see also the acoustic attenuation article.

D'Alembert gave the general solution for the lossless wave equation. For sound pressure, a solution would be


is angular frequency in rad/s
is time in s
is wave number in rad·m−1
is a coefficient without unit

For the wave becomes a travelling wave moving rightwards, for the wave becomes a travelling wave moving leftwards. A standing wave can be obtained by .


In a travelling wave pressure and particle velocity are in phase, which means the phase angle between the two quantities is zero.

This can be easily proven using the ideal gas law


is pressure in Pa
is volume in m3
is amount in mol
is the universal gas constant with value

Consider a volume . As an acoustic wave propagates through the volume, adiabatic compression and decompression occurs. For adiabatic change the following relation between volume of a parcel of fluid and pressure holds


is the adiabatic index without unit

As a sound wave propagates through a volume, displacement of particles occurs along the wave propagation direction.


is cross-sectional area in m2

From this equation it can be seen that when pressure is at its maximum, displacement reaches zero. As mentioned before, the oscillating pressure for a rightward travelling wave can be given by

Since displacement is maximum when pressure is zero there is a 90 degrees phase difference, so displacement is given by

Particle velocity is the first derivative of particle displacement. Differentiation of a sine gives a cosine again

During adiabatic change, temperature changes with pressure as well following

This fact is exploited within the field of thermoacoustics.

Propagation speed[edit]

The propagation speed of acoustic waves is given by the speed of sound. In general, the speed of sound c is given by the Newton-Laplace equation:


C is a coefficient of stiffness, the bulk modulus (or the modulus of bulk elasticity for gas mediums),
is the density in kg/m3

Thus the speed of sound increases with the stiffness (the resistance of an elastic body to deformation by an applied force) of the material, and decreases with the density. For general equations of state, if classical mechanics is used, the speed of sound is given by

where differentiation is taken with respect to adiabatic change.

where is the pressure and is the density


Interference is the addition of two or more waves that results in a new wave pattern. Interference of sound waves can be observed when two loudspeakers transmit the same signal. At certain locations constructive interference occurs, doubling the local sound pressure. And at other locations destructive interference occurs, causing a local sound pressure of zero pascals.

Standing wave[edit]

A standing wave is a special kind of wave that can occur in a resonator. In a resonator superposition of the incident and reflective wave occurs, causing a standing wave. Pressure and particle velocity are 90 degrees out of phase in a standing wave.

Consider a tube with two closed ends acting as a resonator. The resonator has normal modes at frequencies given by


is the speed of sound in m/s
is the length of the tube in m

At the ends particle velocity becomes zero since there can be no particle displacement. Pressure however doubles at the ends because of interference of the incident wave with the reflective wave. As pressure is maximum at the ends while velocity is zero, there is a 90 degrees phase difference between them.


An acoustic travelling wave can be reflected by a solid surface. If a travelling wave is reflected, the reflected wave can interfere with the incident wave causing a standing wave in the near field. As a consequence, the local pressure in the near field is doubled, and the particle velocity becomes zero.

Attenuation causes the reflected wave to decrease in power as distance from the reflective material increases. As the power of the reflective wave decreases compared to the power of the incident wave, interference also decreases. And as interference decreases, so does the phase difference between sound pressure and particle velocity. At a large enough distance from the reflective material, there is no interference left anymore. At this distance one can speak of the far field.

The amount of reflection is given by the reflection coefficient which is the ratio of the reflected intensity over the incident intensity


Acoustic waves can be absorbed. The amount of absorption is given by the absorption coefficient which is given by


is the absorption coefficient without a unit
is the reflection coefficient without a unit

Often acoustic absorption of materials is given in decibels instead.


Sound pressure can be measured directly using a microphone. Particle velocity can be measured directly using a particle velocity probe. It is also possible to measure the quantities indirectly using the opposite instrument. Sound intensity can be measured using different combinations:

  • Microphone and particle velocity probe (p-u probe)
  • Two microphones (p-p probe)
  • Two particle velocity probes (u-u probe)

The sound pressure is measured in pascal, the particle velocity in meters per second, and the sound intensity in watts. Often these quantities are measured as a level in decibels relative to a certain quantity.

The sound pressure level is given by


is the root-mean square pressure in Pa
is the reference value of 2*10−5 Pa

The particle velocity level is given by


is the root-mean square particle velocity in m/s
is the reference value of 5*10−8 m/s

The sound intensity level is given by


is the root-mean square sound intensity in W
is the reference value of 1*10−12 W

See also[edit]