# Strings, standing waves and harmonics

### Introduction: vibrations, strings, pipes, percussion....

How do we make musical sounds? To make a sound, we need something that vibrates. If we want to make musical notes you usually need the vibration to have an almost constant frequency: that means stable pitch. We also want a frequency that can be easily controlled by the player. In electronic instruments this is done with electric circuits or with clocks and memories. In non-electronic instruments, the stable, controlled vibration is produced by a standing wave. Here we discuss the way strings work. This also a useful introduction for studying wind instruments, because vibrating strings are easier to visualise than the vibration of the air in wind instruments. Both are less complicated than the vibrations of the bars and skins of the percussion family. For the physics of standing waves, there is a multimedia tutorial.

### Travelling waves in strings

 The strings in the violin, piano and so on are stretched tightly and vibrate so fast that it is impossible to see what is going on. If you can find a long spring (a toy known as a 'slinky' works well) or several metres of flexible rubber hose you can try a few fun experiments which will make it easy to understand how strings work. (Soft rubber is good for this, garden hoses are not really flexible enough.) First hold or clamp one end and then, holding the other end still in one hand, stretch it a little (not too much, a little sag won't hurt). Now pull it aside with the other hand to make a kink, and then let it go. (This, in slow motion, is what happens when you pluck a string.) You will probably see that the kink travels down the "string", and then it comes back to you. It will suddenly tug your hand sideways but, if you are holding it firmly, it will reflect again. First you will notice that the speed of the wave in the string increases if you stretch it more tightly. This is useful for tuning instruments - but we're getting ahead of ourselves. It also depends on the "weight" of the string - it travels more slowly in a thick, heavy string than in a light string of the same length under the same tension. (Strictly, it is the ratio of tension to mass per unit length that determines speed, as we'll see below.) Next let's have a close look at the reflection at the fixed end. You'll notice that if you initially pull the string to the left, the kink that travels away from you is to the left, but that it comes back as a kink to the right - the reflection is inverted. This effect is important not only in string instruments, but in winds and percussion as well. When a wave encounters a boundary with something that won't move or change (or that doesn't change easily), the reflection is inverted. (The fact that it is inverted gives zero displacement at the end. However, reflection with any phase change will give a standing wave.)

### Plucked strings

#### A bowed string behaves rather differently

First, it has a continuous source of energy, and so can maintain the same motion indefinitely (or at least until one runs out of bow. Second, the string shape required to match the uniformly moving bow is different.

A sketch of the reflection of travelling kinks caused by bowing a string. See the animation and an explanation of the bow-string interaction in Bows and strings

### Travelling waves and standing waves

An interesting effect occurs if you try to send a simple wave along the string by repeatedly waving one end up and down. If you have found a suitable spring or rubber hose, try it out. Otherwise, look at these diagrams.

 The animation shows the interaction of two waves, with equal frequency and magnitude, travelling in opposite directions: blue to the right, green to the left. The red line is their sum: the red wave is what happens when the two travelling waves add together (superpose is the technical term). By stopping the animation, you can check that the red wave really is the sum of the two interacting travelling waves. The figure at right is the same diagram represented as a time sequence - time increases from top to bottom. You could think of it as representing a series of photographs of the waves, taken very quickly. The red wave is what we would actually see in a such photographs. Suppose that the right hand limit is an immoveable wall. As discussed above, the wave is inverted on reflection so, in each "photograph", the blue plus green adds up to zero on the right hand boundary. The reflected (green) wave has the same frequency and amplitude but is travelling in the opposite direction. At the fixed end they add to give no motion - zero displacement: after all it is this condition of immobility which causes the inverted reflection. But if you look at the red line in the animation or the diagram (the sum of the two waves) you'll see that there are other points where the string never moves! They occur half a wavelength apart. These motionless points are called nodes of the vibration, and they play an important role in nearly all of the instrument families. Halfway between the nodes are antinodes: points of maximum motion. But note that these peaks are not travelling along the string: the combination of two waves travelling in opposite directions produces a standing wave. This is shown in the animation and the figure. Note the positions (nodes) where the two travelling waves always cancel out, and the others (antinodes) where they add to give an oscillation with maximum amplitude. You could think of this diagram as a representation (not to scale) of the fifth harmonic on a string whose length is the width of the diagram. This brings us to the next topic.

### Complications with harmonic tuning

The scale positions are in just intonation. The touch at 2/9 is safer than that at 1/9, but it doesn't fall above any scale note position: it is a little above the minor third. Violists or violoncellists rehearsing Radulescu's "Practicing Infinity" (sic) are invited to write to me for further suggestions about techniques for high harmonics.