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  • Define pitch.
  • Describe the relationship between the speed of sound, its frequency, and its wavelength.
  • Describe the effects on the speed of sound as it travels through various media.
  • Describe the effects of temperature on the speed of sound.
A photograph of a fireworks display in the sky.
When a firework explodes, the light energy is perceived before the sound energy. Sound travels more slowly than light does. (credit: Dominic Alves, Flickr)

Sound, like all waves, travels at a certain speed and has the properties of frequency and wavelength. You can observe direct evidence of the speed of sound while watching a fireworks display. The flash of an explosion is seen well before its sound is heard, implying both that sound travels at a finite speed and that it is much slower than light. You can also directly sense the frequency of a sound. Perception of frequency is called pitch    . The wavelength of sound is not directly sensed, but indirect evidence is found in the correlation of the size of musical instruments with their pitch. Small instruments, such as a piccolo, typically make high-pitch sounds, while large instruments, such as a tuba, typically make low-pitch sounds. High pitch means small wavelength, and the size of a musical instrument is directly related to the wavelengths of sound it produces. So a small instrument creates short-wavelength sounds. Similar arguments hold that a large instrument creates long-wavelength sounds.

The relationship of the speed of sound, its frequency, and wavelength is the same as for all waves:

v w = fλ, size 12{v size 8{w}=fλ} {}

where v w size 12{v size 8{w}} {} is the speed of sound, f size 12{f} {} is its frequency, and λ size 12{λ} {} is its wavelength. The wavelength of a sound is the distance between adjacent identical parts of a wave—for example, between adjacent compressions as illustrated in [link] . The frequency is the same as that of the source and is the number of waves that pass a point per unit time.

A picture of a vibrating tuning fork is shown. The sound wave compressions and rarefactions are shown to emanate from the fork on both the sides as semicircular arcs of alternate bold and dotted lines. The wavelength is marked as the distance between two successive bold arcs. The frequency of the vibrations is shown as f and velocity of the wave represented by v sub w.
A sound wave emanates from a source vibrating at a frequency f , propagates at v w , and has a wavelength λ size 12{λ} {} .

[link] makes it apparent that the speed of sound varies greatly in different media. The speed of sound in a medium is determined by a combination of the medium’s rigidity (or compressibility in gases) and its density. The more rigid (or less compressible) the medium, the faster the speed of sound. This observation is analogous to the fact that the frequency of a simple harmonic motion is directly proportional to the stiffness of the oscillating object. The greater the density of a medium, the slower the speed of sound. This observation is analogous to the fact that the frequency of a simple harmonic motion is inversely proportional to the mass of the oscillating object. The speed of sound in air is low, because air is compressible. Because liquids and solids are relatively rigid and very difficult to compress, the speed of sound in such media is generally greater than in gases.

Speed of sound in various media
Medium v w (m/s)
Gases at 0ºC
Air 331
Carbon dioxide 259
Oxygen 316
Helium 965
Hydrogen 1290
Liquids at 20ºC
Ethanol 1160
Mercury 1450
Water, fresh 1480
Sea water 1540
Human tissue 1540
Solids (longitudinal or bulk)
Vulcanized rubber 54
Polyethylene 920
Marble 3810
Glass, Pyrex 5640
Lead 1960
Aluminum 5120
Steel 5960

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Source:  OpenStax, Physics of the world around us. OpenStax CNX. May 21, 2015 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11797/1.1
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