How Does Sound Travel? - Lesson for Kids

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  • 0:03 The Amazing Abilities of Sound
  • 1:07 Movement of Sound
  • 2:07 Solids
  • 2:50 Air
  • 3:22 Liquids
  • 3:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Emily Lockhart

Emily has taught science and has a master's degree in education.

Expert Contributor
Alfred Mulzet

Dr. Alfred Kenric Mulzet received his Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from Virginia Tech. He currently teaches at Florida State College in Jacksonville.

Learn the secret to how sound can travel. Examine details of sound and how different objects create different sounds. Discover how sound can travel through water, air, or solids.

The Amazing Abilities of Sound

Imagine that you're holding a rubber band tightly between your fingers. What if someone were to pluck the rubber band? You would feel the vibrations of the rubber band on your hand at the same time the twang sound was made. Just like when you're standing next to a big speaker, the vibrations of sound can be felt. They can even move things!

So what is sound? Well, if you haven't guessed already, it's vibration. Sound vibrations travel in a wave pattern, and we call these vibrations sound waves. Sound waves move by vibrating objects and these objects vibrate other surrounding objects, carrying the sound along. The further away from the original source of a sound you are, the waves lessen until they don't have the strength to vibrate any other particles. It's like when you throw a stone into a pond and it makes ripples that make more ripples until it slowly dies out.

Sound can move through the air, water, or solids, as long as there are particles to bounce off of. However, if there are not particles to bounce off of, it can't move. There is no sound in the vacuum of space, because there is nothing to vibrate the sound.

Movement of Sound

Now that we know that sound waves can travel through air, water, and solids, let's look at how. Remember that rubber band? When you pluck the rubber band you can hear a sound, twang! That sound travels through the air from the rubber band to your ear. How? It seems strange but the air we breathe is full of gas molecules like oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. Molecules are the small repeating unit that makes up an object, and can't be divided further. The rubber band vibrates back and forth really quickly. As the rubber band vibrates back and forth, it bounces into the molecules in the air that are next to the rubber band, which bounce into the air molecules next to them, which bounce into the molecules next to them, and so on. This is what we call a sound wave. When molecules in the air bounce against your ear drum with enough energy, we call that hearing!

The wave will lessen as it passes through the air. That's why sound from your headphones is a lot louder when the headphones are in your ear.

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Additional Activities

Sound Travel Extension Project

Online Research

How can we explore the effects of different media on sound? Look up the speed of sound in air, in water, and in steel. Make sure that the speeds are all in the same units, such as feet per second. Which one is the fastest? Do you think that the speed varies depending on how warm it is? Is warm water better for the speed of sound - in other words, does it speed up sound or slow down sound?

Experiment - Sound and Music

Another way to explore how sound is generated is to use a musical instrument, such as a guitar or a violin. Pick one of the strings and pluck it. Then place your finger on one of the frets of that string, and pluck it again. A vibrating string can create sound, much like a rubber band with its twang. Does a shorter string make a lower or higher pitch? Now measure the string, and pick a point that cuts the length in half. Does this sound like the original sound? Is it higher or lower? Is it the same pitch (i.e., note on the piano)?

Experiment - Sound and Distance

To measure the effect of distance on sound, you can create a sound, then have the listener stand farther and farther away. See how far away they can hear the same sound. If they are twice as far away, do you think the sound is half as loud? In fact, the intensity varies like the square of the distance. So, if you are twice as far away from the sound, the intensity is one-fourth of the previous intensity.

Finally, does sound travel faster or slower than light? Again, you may need to make sure that the units are the same. Sound can be measured in feet per second, and light is measured in miles per second. However, you should still be able to come up with a meaningful comparison.

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