Wave Front Diagram: Definition & Applications

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

A wave front diagram is a simple way to demonstrate waves and see how the waves are moving. In this lesson we will learn what a wave front diagram is and how it can be used.

Picturing Waves

Imagine you are at the ocean, watching the waves as they hit the shore. Or, while standing near a still pond you throw in a rock and watch the ripples expand out from the center. We are familiar with waves within the water, and we can easily picture these kinds of waves. But sound and light waves tend to be harder to understand, because we can't picture them. But, they behave in very similar ways as the waves in water.

Look at this picture of ripples in the water:

Water moves in circles from the source of the drop
Ripples in water

The waves proceed out in a circle, from the center. All waves happen in a circle from the source. But, most of the time we are looking at the wave from too far out, so it appears like a straight line; therefore, we typically depict waves as a straight line.

Let's imagine the ocean waves as they rise up and fall down, creating crests and troughs. If you were to watch a single wave it would go up and down in consistent sizes. If we were to track this up and down pattern we would end up with a pattern such as this:

A single wave moves consistently up and down
Single wave

Now, if we were to track several of these same waves, the crests (wave front) and troughs would line up:

The same kind of waves from the same source line up the crests and troughs
Several waves together

Next, if we were to simply draw the lines showing where the crests line up we would end up with a bunch of lines next to each other:

Wave front diagram

This diagram that simply shows how far apart the wave fronts are is called a wave front diagram.

Applying the Wave Front Diagram

What is the purpose of a wave front diagram? It seems kind of silly -- it is a bunch of lines that are evenly spaced apart. We already know that a wave has crests that appear in consistent intervals. So, what does a wave front diagram show us that we don't already know?

Let's say you were given a wave front diagram that looks like this:

This wave front diagram shows the frequency of the wave fronts decreasing over time
Wave moving

The wave fronts are getting further and further away from each other. What does this tell us? It tells us that the source of the sound is moving away from us (or we are moving away from the sound). So, a wave front diagram can easily demonstrate movement towards or away from the source of the sound (or light, or any other wave source).

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