Wave Motion - How it works

Related Forms of Motion

In wave motion, energy—the ability to perform work, or to exert force over distance—is transmitted from one place to another without actually moving any matter along the wave. In some types of waves, such as those on the ocean, it might seem as though matter itself has been displaced; that is, it appears that the water has actually moved from its original position. In fact, this is not the case: molecules of water in an ocean wave move up and down, but they do not actually travel with the wave itself. Only the energy is moved.

A wave is an example of a larger class of regular, repeated, and/or back-and-forth types of motion. As with wave motion, these varieties of movement may or may not involve matter, but, in any case, the key component is not matter, but energy. Broadest among these is periodic motion, or motion that is repeated at regular intervals called periods. A period might be the amount of time that it takes an object orbiting another (as, for instance, a satellite going around Earth) to complete one cycle of orbit. With wave motion, a period is the amount of time required to complete one full cycle of the wave, from trough to crest and back to trough.


Harmonic motion is the repeated movement of a particle about a position of equilibrium, or balance. In harmonic motion—or, more specifically, simple harmonic motion—the object moves back and forth under the influence of a force directed toward the position of equilibrium, or the place where the object stops if it ceases to be in motion. A familiar example of harmonic motion, to anyone who has seen an old movie with a clichéd depiction of a hypnotist, is the back-and-forth movement of the hypnotist's watch, as he tries to control the mind of his patient.

One variety of harmonic motion is vibration, which wave motion resembles in some respects. Both wave motion and vibration are periodic, involving the regular repetition of a certain form of movement. In both, there is a continual conversion and reconversion between potential energy (the energy of an object due to its position, as for instance with a sled at the top of a hill) and kinetic energy (the energy of an object due to its motion, as with the sled when sliding down the hill.) The principal difference between vibration and wave motion is that, in the first instance, the energy remains in place, whereas waves actually transport energy from one place to another.


Oscillation is a type of harmonic motion, typically periodic, in one or more dimensions. Suppose a spring is fixed in

HEINRICH HERTZ. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
. Reproduced by permission.)
place to a ceiling, such that it hangs downward. At this point, the spring is in a position of equilibrium. Now, consider what happens if the spring is grasped at a certain point and lifted, then let go. It will, of course, fall downward with the force of gravity until it comes to a stop—but it will not stop at the earlier position of equilibrium. Instead, it will continue downward to a point of maximum tension, where it possesses maximum potential energy as well. Then, it will spring upward again, and as it moves, its kinetic energy increases, while potential energy decreases. At the high point of this period of oscillation, the spring will not be as high as it was before it was originally released, but it will be higher than the position of equilibrium.

Once it falls, the spring will again go lower than the position of equilibrium, but not as low as before—and so on. This is an example of oscillation. Now, imagine what happens if another spring is placed beside the first one, and they are connected by a rubber band. If just the first spring is disturbed, as before, the second spring will still move, because the energy created by the movement of the first spring will be transmitted to the second one via the rubber band. The same will happen if a row of springs, all side-by-side, are attached by multiple rubber bands, and the first spring is once again disturbed: the energy will pass through the rubber bands, from spring to spring, causing the entire row to oscillate. This is similar to what happens in the motion of a wave.

Types and Properties of Waves

There are some types of waves that do not follow regular, repeated patterns; these are discussed below, in the illustration concerning a string, in which a pulse is created and reflected. Of principal concern here, however, is the periodic wave, a series of wave motions, following one after the other in regular succession. Examples of periodic waves include waves on the ocean, sound waves, and electromagnetic waves. The last of these include visible light and radio, among others.

Electromagnetic waves involve only energy; on the other hand, a mechanical wave involves matter as well. Ocean waves are mechanical waves; so, too, are sound waves, as well as the waves produced by pulling a string. It is important to note, again, that the matter itself is not moved from place to place, though it may move in place without leaving its position. For example, water molecules in the crest of an ocean wave rotate in the same direction as the wave, while those in the trough of the wave rotate in a direction opposite to that of the wave, yet there is no net motion of the water: only energy is transmitted along the wave.


There are three notable interrelated characteristics of periodic waves. One of these is wave speed, symbolized by v and typically calculated in meters per second. Another is wavelength, represented as λ (the Greek letter lambda), which is the distance between a crest and the adjacent crest, or a trough and the adjacent trough. The third is frequency, abbreviated as f , which is the number of waves passing through a given point during the interval of 1 second.

Frequency is measured in terms of cycles per second, or Hertz (Hz), named in honor of nineteenth-century German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz (1857-1894). If a wave has a frequency of 100 Hz, this means that 100 waves are passing through a given point during the interval of 1 second. Higher frequencies are expressed in terms of kilohertz (kHz; 10 3 or 1,000 cycles per

TRANSVERSE WAVES PRODUCED BY A WATER DROPLET PENETRATING THE SURFACE OF A BODY OF LIQUID. (Photograph by Martin Dohrn/Science Photo Library, National Audubon Society Collection/Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced with permission.)
Martin Dohrn/Science Photo Library, National Audubon Society Collection/Photo Researchers, Inc
. Reproduced with permission.)
second) or megahertz (MHz; 10 6 or 1 million cycles per second.)

Frequency is clearly related to wave speed, and there is also a relationship—though it is not so immediately grasped—between wavelength and speed. Over the interval of 1 second, a given number of waves pass a certain point (frequency), and each wave occupies a certain distance (wavelength). Multiplied by one another, these two properties equal the speed of the wave. This can be stated as a formula: v = f λ.

Earlier, the term "period" was defined in terms of wave motion as the amount of time required to complete one full cycle of the wave. Period, symbolized by T, can be expressed in terms of frequency, and, thus, can also be related to the other two properties identified above. It is the inverse of frequency, meaning that T = 1/ f. Furthermore, period is equal to the ratio of wavelength to wave speed; in other words, T = λ/ v.

A fifth property of waves—one not mathematically related to wavelength, wave speed, frequency, or period, is amplitude. Amplitude can be defined as the maximum displacement of oscillating particles from their normal position. For an ocean wave, amplitude is the distance from either the crest or the trough to the level that the ocean would maintain if it were perfectly still.


When most people think of waves, naturally, one of the first images that comes to mind is that of waves on the ocean. These are an example of a transverse wave, or one in which the vibration or motion is perpendicular to the direction the wave is moving. (Actually, ocean waves are simply perceived as transverse waves; in fact, as discussed below, their behavior is rather more complicated.) In a longitudinal wave, on the other hand, the movement of vibration is in the same direction as the wave itself.

Transverse waves are easier to visualize, particularly with regard to the aspects of wave motion—for example, frequency and amplitude—discussed above. Yet, longitudinal waves can be understood in terms of a common example. Sound waves, for instance, are longitudinal: thus, when a stereo is turned up to a high volume, the speakers vibrate in the same direction as the sound itself.

A longitudinal wave may be understood as a series of fluctuations in density. If one were to take a coiled spring (such as the toy known as the "Slinky") and release one end while holding the other, the motion of the springs would produce longitudinal waves. As these waves pass through the spring, they cause some portions of it to be compressed and others extended. The distance between each point of compression is the wavelength.

Now, to return to the qualified statement made above: that ocean waves are an example of transverse waves. We perceive them as transverse waves, but, in fact, they are also longitudinal. In fact, all types of waves on the surface of a liquid are a combination of longitudinal and transverse, and are known as surface waves. Thus, if one drops a stone into a body of still water, waves radiate outward (longitudinal), but these waves also have a component that is perpendicular to the surface of the water, meaning that they are also transverse.

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