Waves: Components, Types & Parameters

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

After completing this lesson, you will be able to explain what a wave is, describe the various types of waves and measure their features, like components and parameters. A short quiz will follow.

What is a Wave?

A wave is a vibration in space and time that continues in a repetitive pattern. Waves transfer energy from one place to another. Examples include water waves, sound waves, light waves and seismic waves. You can make a wave yourself by shaking a slinky back and forth.

Any oscillating vibration is a wave. Whether we realize it or not, we're surrounded by waves everyday, which makes understanding them very important. In today's lesson we'll explore the components and parameters of waves. We'll also talk about the various types of waves that exist in the world and how we classify them.

Components and Parameters of Waves

Waves have various identifiable features or components. They also have various parameters you can measure. Let's go through some of the most important ones. First, take a look at this image of a wave:

Graph of a Wave (X vs. Y Snapshot)
Graph of a Wave

Waves like this have peaks and troughs. The peak is like the top of the hill, while the trough is like the bottom of the hill. Waves also have amplitudes, which is a measure of how tall a wave is above the center line, also known as the rest position.

The last identifiable feature of a wave is its wavelength, or the length of the wave from left to right. You calculate it by measuring from one peak to the next peak, one trough to the next trough, as well as from any point until one complete cycle has finished. Wavelength is a distance, so it's measured in meters. Be careful though: you can only mark wavelength on a diagram if the graph has an x-axis and a y-axis, which conveys a picture of a wave at an instant in time.

When you label the features of a wave, you get a diagram like this:

Labeled X-Y Wave Graph
Labeled X-Y Wave Graph

There are also other parameters of waves we can measure. For example, we can measure time period, frequency and wave speed. To do this, we need to graph the relationship between position and time, as shown below:

Displacement-Time Graph for a Wave
Displacement-Time Graph for a Wave

In this case, we're looking at how a wave moves in one particular dimension over a period of time. Now, what was previously shown as wavelength is now the time period, or the time it takes for one full wave to pass by. Once we know the time period of a wave, we can figure out its frequency.

Labeled Y-T Wave Graph
Labeled Y-T Wave Graph

Frequency is the number of waves that pass by each second, measured in hertz. You can calculate it by finding the reciprocal of the time period. For example, if the time period is 0.5 seconds, you know that two waves pass by every second: 0.5 + 0.5 = 1 second. To check your answer, calculate the reciprocal of 0.5: 1/0.5 = 2 hertz.

Lastly, we can calculate wave speed, which is the wavelength divided by the time period, and measures how fast the wave is moving through space:

Wavespeed Equation
Wavespeed Equation

Types of Waves

Now that we've figured out all the components and parameters, let's look at the different types of waves. We can classify waves a few different ways:

  • Medium vs. no medium
  • Transverse vs. longitudinal
  • Traveling vs. standing waves.

Most waves need a medium, or material to travel though. For instance, sound waves need air, while water waves need water. However there are a few exceptions: electromagnetic waves like light, ultraviolet, infrared, radio and other waves. Waves like these can travel through the vacuum of space and don't need a medium.

Some waves are transverse, and some are longitudinal. A transverse wave is one that vibrates at 90 degrees to the direction of motion, making the traditional wave shape we've seen in our previous diagrams. By comparison, a longitudinal waves vibrates parallel to the direction of motion, creating areas with high particle density and areas with low particle density. This is like taking a slinky and, instead of moving it side to side, sending a pulse through it. Try it if you're not sure!

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