Waves: Types & Definition

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  • 0:02 What Is a Wave?
  • 1:04 Mechanical Waves
  • 1:43 Examples of Mechanical Waves
  • 3:57 Electromagentic Waves
  • 4:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Maria Howard

Maria is a teacher and a learning specialist and has master's degrees in literature and education.

Examine the different types of waves and what parts of our daily lives are affected by waves, from the ocean to the microwave to sound. Explore how waves are measured and classified.

What Is a Wave?

If you've ever played with a giant, colorful parachute in P.E., then you know that parachutes make terrific ripples that act a lot like waves. Just as you and your classmates would lift the parachute up and down to start the parachute moving, waves begin with an initial energy source, too.

Ocean waves are powered by wind. The water takes on the energy and then passes it through a wave, sometimes for long distances. We think of waves as great swells and depressions of ocean water, but waves aren't limited to just water. Waves are powered in different ways, like the shifting of the Earth's plates (earthquakes) or the production of sound (talking, banging, singing, honking a car horn).

A wave is a transfer of energy, usually through a form of matter called a medium. For example, the energy provided by the kids at play travels through the medium of the parachute. There are also waves that don't travel through any medium at all, called electromagnetic waves, which are waves like radio waves and microwaves.

Mechanical Waves

Waves that need a medium, like water, air or the ground, to travel through are called mechanical waves. Sound waves travel, or propagate, through the medium of air, while seismic waves from earthquakes propagate through the ground. Not all waves are visible to the naked eye, but if you've ever seen the bass vibrating off of a car playing loud music, you can see the energy of sound at work. Without air to move through, though, we couldn't hear sound. In case you are wondering, this explains why astronauts in movies can hear one another when they have their helmets on (air), but not when they are helmet-less and being sucked into the void of space (no air).

Examples of Mechanical Waves

Think for a minute about the parachute: how the fabric goes up and then down. The water in an ocean wave also moves up and then down. It does not actually move forward, as the motion of a wave fools us into thinking, but stays in the spot, merely jumping up and then down. The exception to this would be when waves crash onto the shore and break up.

Waves that move up and down like a parachute are transverse waves, which have a sort of sideways S shape. Each wave has a curved high point called a crest and a low point called a trough. The distance from the highest point of one crest to the highest point of the next crest is a single wavelength.

We like to take a bunch of different measurements of waves. In addition to measuring the distance between crests, we also measure the amplitude of a wave. The amplitude is the height of a wave, which is measured in meters (or centimeters, millimeters, etc). To take the parachute example a bit further, zero amplitude occurs when everyone holds the parachute still and perfectly horizontal. The extent to which the crest rises above the equilibrium position is the amplitude of the wave.

Waves are also measured by their frequency, or the number of waves per second, also known as hertz. A high number of waves per second is a high frequency and few waves per second is a low frequency.

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