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10 Connections Between Physics and Music

8

Standing Waves

The waves that carry sound behave very similarly to water waves. ©Fuse/Thinkstock
The waves that carry sound behave very similarly to water waves. ©Fuse/Thinkstock

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Music is made up of sound waves. Those waves behave like those found, for example, in a lake.

If you watch as waves roll into a flat-faced dam on a windy day, you'll eventually see a wave carom backwards off of the dam and directly into another incoming wave. The result is a taller, more massive tower of water. Likewise, the lower parts of the wave get even lower.

This is called a standing wave. If you fashion a container in a specific shape, sound waves will travel in a controlled manner, resulting in a predictable, consistent standing wave that makes a tone. The consistent nature of a tone is what separates it from noise.

So horns and string instruments ultimately help the player make a number of different standing waves. Played skillfully, listeners hear a song.

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