We love to work with sound. Many of us record our own music, podcast, or other forms of sound. Knowing how sound travels through different mediums will allow you to have better control over the sound that you generate. That is what we will be looking at today. How does sound travel through solids, liquids, and gases?
Can the way that you produce sound and the medium that it moves in make a difference in the volume that you will hear? How does this change when it comes to the different mediums? Will the furniture in a room have any impact on the acoustics of the room? How can you change it to create the perfect recording environment?
These are just some of the things that we will discuss today. Knowing how sound travels through solids, liquids and gases are not only interesting, but it can have an impact on the way we record sounds and how we change things up.
Why Is the Way That Sound Travels Through Mediums Important?
One of the main reasons why it is important to understand how sound acts, is that when you understand something better, you can control it. As a youngster, I loved swimming. I still do. But one of my main attractions was that underneath the water it was the one place where everything went quiet. It always felt like the world stopped and it was just me and complete calm.
I loved my family but there was always so much going on that it was just a great place to just be with my own imagination and thoughts. I could make up imaginary worlds and people, and have millions of stories running through my mind. All because there was a lack of sound under the water.
But in reality, when you look at how sound behaves in a liquid, scientifically, this should not be the case. In fact, there should be more sound under the water than there is in the fresh air. Why? And why doesn’t it work that way? I wanted to find out.
For many of us who record sound, it is important to be connected to it. If you understand what makes something sound fuller, what makes a noise loud, and how things act, you can have better control and your recording will end up being closer to what you intended in the first place.
You might be recording a podcast, but for some reason, your voice keeps sounding muffled, understanding sound can help you identify what the cause could be and how you can fix it.
What Is Sound?
To understand why sound acts differently in different mediums we first have to understand what sound is.
First, you need to know that sound can not exist in a void. This is different from light that does travel through nothingness. That is why we can see light shining from space where there is a void and no atmosphere. But those that have been to space say it is completely quiet. It must be an almost eerie feeling.
Sound happens when something creates a vibration. This is done through musical instruments, our voices, speakers, and many other things. This then causes the medium around it, like the water or the air, to also vibrate and carry this sound with them. Without a medium, sound would not exist. That is because the molecules of the medium react and bump into those next to it and this allows the sound to travel on.
At the same time, the medium that is used will determine just how loud the sound will be, it will also determine how far can travel and how the sound will generally react. This is because different solutions will have molecules that are more or less densely packed.
Your surroundings will have a big impact. People who create a sound studio try to make the acoustics of the room as powerful as possible. This should help you do that.
Let us now look at the three mediums that sound can travel through, solids, liquids, and gases, and how they change the reaction of the sound.
First up we can look at gasses. You might wonder why gasses are mentioned when speaking of mediums that sound can move in. You may be visualizing a bunch of fog at a concert that makes the lights look incredible and makes the crowd go wild.
And that is one possibility of gasses that can be used as a medium for sound to travel through. But most of the time, our air is the only gas that sound needs to continue its vibration.
What Is the Air Made Of?
We have already mentioned that sound can not exist in a void. But we can hear each other when we speak out in the open. We can hear music when it is being played under the starry sky and we can even hear kids shouting in a park a block away.
That is because most of the air in our atmosphere is made up of gasses. Our atmosphere is not just a void, or we wouldn’t be able to live here anyway, but is made up of lots of gasses we can’t see. The atmosphere is made up of 78% Nitrogen, and 21% Oxygen, and the rest is a mixture of carbon dioxide, neon, and hydrogen.
This gives us all the ability to breathe without needing a space suit, but it also gives sound the ability to travel in our atmosphere. We make a vibration and the molecules of the gases that we can’t even see start to bump into each other and takes that vibration further, making it possible for us to hear sounds. It is pretty amazing when you think about it.
How Does Sound Travel Through Gases?
Gas is the medium that will have the slowest speed of sound of all of them. This is because the molecules of the gases surrounding us are expanded and far away from each other. The vibrations do get passed over to each other but it takes longer to do.
This is also why we often need things that can amplify our sounds like a microphone when we are speaking to a bigger group of people. These help us to make the vibrations bigger and to allow them to travel further than we would have been able to achieve with only our voice.
Some Things That Can Influence Sound in Gases
Have you ever felt that things are so much quieter after a big snowstorm? How the world seems almost different then? Turns out it might not just be your imagination. This is because the volume and speed of sound can be impacted by the temperature of the air and in turn the gas that is surrounding us.
At lower temperatures, the molecules move around quicker and they can vibrate quicker. The energy behind the sound can start to be lost and the sound will become quieter or be lost faster.
At normal room temperatures, the speed of sound will be a lot higher than it would be in the exact same room when the temperature is at freezing.
There are many different liquids that have a higher or lower density but for the most part, it is in water where we would be interested in hearing a sound. If we go swimming or put a small portable speaker close to the water, we would like to hear the sound as loud as possible. But it just doesn’t always work like that.
Let’s see how sound reacts in water or other liquids.
Sound In Water
The molecules in water are a lot more tightly packed than it is in gas. That is why sound travels much faster in water than it would travel in the air. Sound can actually travel in water almost four times faster than it can be in the air.
That is really impressive. And still, if you submerge your head underwater, you will hear the sound but it might sound muffled and not quite like the sound that you are used to.
Why Humans Hear Muffled Sounds in Water
The water molecules are more tightly packed and the energy that it uses to carry sound is transported faster. In theory, you should be able to hear noises a lot louder when you are underwater. But that is not how we perceive this sound.
This is because our ears are created to listen to sounds in the air. We pick up on sounds through our ear canal and these sounds are then transported to the brain that makes sense of it all. When you only submerge your ears, sounds will sound very muffled since the ears can’t take these sounds along the ear canal.
When you submerge your head fully suddenly the sound is clearer and louder. Although it could still be somewhat muffled compared to outside the water. Our heads contain a lot of water, and inside the water, it will be our tissue that picks up on the sound and detects it.
You could try to plug your ears but it will have very little effect on the volume of the noise under the water. The sound is not traveling along those normal lines.
At the same time, chances are that it is also very hard and almost impossible for you to figure out from which direction the sound is coming. When the sound travels along the normal route our brain has cues to determine if it comes from behind us or in front. But when the sound does not travel in those normal routes the brain has no way of telling us where it is coming from.
For humans communicating through sound under the water is not so easy. That is why divers have always used hand signals to communicate with their diving partners and why some have even started to use microphones that connect them. Allowing for a much better communication route.
We know that we can’t hear sound in the same way when we are inside water as when we are in the air. But what happens when we make a big sound inside the water, like shouting? Will someone that is on the outside be able to hear it clearly?
This is unlikely. That is because the surface of the water almost acts as a mirror for sound. Instead of the vibration moving outside of the water it gets reflected back. Making sure that very little sound is heard outside.
Animals In Water
Our ears might be designed to hear in air, but fish and mammals that live in the ocean can take advantage of the speed of sound inside the water. They are adapted to hearing noise completely clearly inside the water.
Since sound does travel quickly in water and they can hear it, they can use sounds to communicate over much larger distances than we are able to do with just our voice. Whales, for example, have been known to use their voice to communicate with other whales over massive distances in the ocean. The sound of a humpback whale can travel thousands of miles in the ocean. It also helps that the vibrations they can create are much larger than the ones our own vocal cords can produce.
Then finally there are solids and how sound reacts when they come into contact with a solid. Since sound starts to get muffled when there are a lot of solid objects in its path you would think that it travels a lot slower in solids. But surprisingly that is not the case. There are however reasons why it reacts in this way.
The Speed of Sound in Solids
A solid object is densely packed with its molecules. Each solid object will be a little bit different from the other depending on the material it is made of and how densely packed its molecules are. There are some materials that will work better as insolation to noise than others, but we will discuss the reason for this shortly. But for the most part, sound will travel a lot faster in solids than it will in both liquids and gasses.
This is because the source of the sound will create the vibration in the molecules of the sound and then these tightly packed molecules will quickly send the vibration further along. This means that the speed of sound is a lot faster when traveling in a solid object and that it will be a lot louder too.
Often a solid object will be a good source of amplification for a sound that you would like to enhance. The sound through a brass bugle gets enhanced through the design of the object and also through the material it is made of.
Examples Of Sounds in Solids
It can be hard to think of examples where solid objects are used to move sound and make it louder. Let’s discuss some simple examples of this.
You can put an ear to a solid object like a table and then make a soft tapping sound on the table. Compare how you heard it when your ear is on the solid compared to how loud it is when you hear the sound through the air. You will be surprised by how clearly the sound is enhanced by listening to it through a solid object.
Another great example of an experiment that many of us probably unknowingly did as children is a string telephone. You take two cups and a long line of string. The two cups are each connected to one side of the string, one person listens into one cup while another speaks into the cup at their end.
In this experiment, the vibrations are created and enhanced by the shape of the cup. Then these vibrations are transferred with the help of a solid object, the string, and the other person can hear your message at the other end of the string. Without raising your voice or shouting.
It is always amazing to see just how far this simple design can carry sound. Fun fact, the world record for the longest-ever string telephone, which was made with tin cans, was a whopping 796 feet long. That is almost the distance of three football fields. That is a long way for a piece of string and two cups to carry sound.
Then another great example of a sound being a lot louder when it is carried through a solid object is sounds that you can hear in the air. For example, hearing the sound of a horse coming closer, its hooves beating down on the ground.
It is already a pretty impressive sound when you hear it in normal circumstances. But try putting your head to the ground and listening to the approach in that way. The sound is much louder and you can almost feel the vibrations that are making the sound you hear.
Why Does Sound Get Muffled Through a Door?
We know now that sound travels much faster through solid objects than it does through gasses or liquids. You would think that a solid object like a wall or a door will enhance the sound but the opposite is true. A sound that is coming from a different room is more muffled.
If there is a lot of noise outside your home, for example, the neighbors having a party, it works to close the doors and windows and the sound won’t bother you as much. Even if you only have standard windows and doors.
How does that work? It works because the sound you are hearing does not originate from inside a solid object. It traveled through the air until it came to your door. There it encountered a solid object. And instead of making the vibrations louder this change in medium made the sound lose some of the energy that it was traveling with. This reduces the level of the noise and makes it less noticeable when there are doors that are closed.
Why Rooms Echo
This change in energy is also one of the reasons why a room will or won’t echo. When you go into an empty room there is a good chance that you can create an echo. That is because the empty room has no solid objects that break the energy of the noise down and stop it.
The vibrations bump only against the walls and reflect back. If you have a room that is still echoing even after your furniture has been installed, then there might not be enough solid objects that stop the speed and the energy of the sound. Something like a carpet that can absorb the vibration can help to stop the echo in the room.
How Sound Travels Through Solids, Liquids, and Gases
Sound needs a medium that can take the vibrations and move them along, allowing us to hear the sounds that are being created.
When it comes to the speed of sound, a solid object will allow the vibration to move much faster since it has the most densely packed molecules. It will also make the sound the loudest. After solids, liquids have the highest speed of sound. And then finally gas, that included our air since it is made up of gasses.
When a sound is traveling through one medium like air and then encounters another, like a solid door, it loses some of its energy and some of the volume will be lost. That is why solid insulation against sound is still one of the best options despite solids being a good conductor of sound.
We might not be able to take full advantage of the high speed of sound that can be found inside a liquid, but those living in the ocean sure can and that is why whale sounds can travel thousands of miles under the water.
Knowing how sound reacts to different mediums will allow us to understand it better. And that means that you should have better control over your recordings and all the ways that you like to create your own very unique sounds.