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Longitudinal and Transverse Waves

22 July, 2019 - 10:18
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So what are we talking about when we speak of sound waves? Waves are disturbances; they are changes in something - the surface of the ocean, the air, electromagnetic fields. Normally, these changes are travelling (except for standing waves (Section 3.2)); the disturbance is moving away from whatever created it, in a kind of domino effect.

Most kinds of waves are transverse waves. In a transverse wave, as the wave is moving in one direction, it is creating a disturbance in a different direction. The most familiar example of this is waves on the surface of water. As the wave travels in one direction - say south - it is creating an up-and-down (not north-and-south) motion on the water's surface. This kind of wave is fairly easy to draw; a line going from left-to-right has up-and-down wiggles. (See Figure 3.2 below)

Figure 3.2 Transverse and Longitudinal Waves
In water waves and other transverse waves, the ups and downs are in a different direction from the forward movement of the wave. The "highs and lows" of sound waves and other longitudinal waves are arranged in the "forward" direction. 

But sound waves are not transverse. Sound waves are longitudinal waves. If sound waves are moving south, the disturbance that they are creating is giving the air molecules extra north-and south (not east-and-west, or up-and-down) motion. If the disturbance is from a regular vibration, the result is that the molecules end up squeezed together into evenly-spaced waves. This is very difficult to show clearly in a diagram, so most diagrams, even diagrams of sound waves, show transverse waves.

Longitudinal waves may also be a little difficult to imagine, because there aren't any examples that we can see in everyday life (unless you like to play with toy slinkies). A mathematical description might be that in longitudinal waves, the waves (the disturbances) are along the same axis as the direction of motion of the wave; transverse waves are at right angles to the direction of motion of the wave. If this doesn't help, try imagining yourself as one of the particles that the wave is disturbing (a water drop on the surface of the ocean, or an air molecule). As it comes from behind you, a transverse waves lifts you up and then drops down; a longitudinal wave coming from behind pushes you forward and pulls you back. You can view here animations of longitudinal and transverse waves, single particles being disturbed by a transverse wave or by a longitudinal wave, and particles being disturbed by transverse and longitudinal waves. (There were also some nice animations of longitudinal waves available as of this writing at Musemath.)

The result of these "forward and backward" waves is that the "high point" of a sound wave is where the air molecules are bunched together, and the "low point" is where there are fewer air molecules. In a pitched sound, these areas of bunched molecules are very evenly spaced. In fact, they are so even, that there are some very useful things we can measure and say about them. In order to clearly show you what they are, most of the diagrams in this course will show sound waves as if they are transverse waves.