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College Physics for AP® Courses

16.10 Superposition and Interference

College Physics for AP® Courses16.10 Superposition and Interference

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Determine the resultant waveform when two waves act in superposition relative to each other.
  • Explain standing waves.
  • Describe the mathematical representation of overtones and beat frequency.
Water surface of a river is shown, with mountains in the background. There are small ripples over the water surface.
Figure 16.35 These waves result from the superposition of several waves from different sources, producing a complex pattern. (credit: waterborough, Wikimedia Commons)

Most waves do not look very simple. They look more like the waves in Figure 16.35 than like the simple water wave considered in Waves. (Simple waves may be created by a simple harmonic oscillation, and thus have a sinusoidal shape). Complex waves are more interesting, even beautiful, but they look formidable. Most waves appear complex because they result from several simple waves adding together. Luckily, the rules for adding waves are quite simple.

When two or more waves arrive at the same point, they superimpose themselves on one another. More specifically, the disturbances of waves are superimposed when they come together—a phenomenon called superposition. Each disturbance corresponds to a force, and forces add. If the disturbances are along the same line, then the resulting wave is a simple addition of the disturbances of the individual waves—that is, their amplitudes add. Figure 16.36 and Figure 16.37 illustrate superposition in two special cases, both of which produce simple results.

Figure 16.36 shows two identical waves that arrive at the same point exactly in phase. The crests of the two waves are precisely aligned, as are the troughs. This superposition produces pure constructive interference. Because the disturbances add, pure constructive interference produces a wave that has twice the amplitude of the individual waves, but has the same wavelength.

Figure 16.37 shows two identical waves that arrive exactly out of phase—that is, precisely aligned crest to trough—producing pure destructive interference. Because the disturbances are in the opposite direction for this superposition, the resulting amplitude is zero for pure destructive interference—the waves completely cancel.

The graph shows two identical waves that arrive at the same point exactly in phase. The crests of the two waves are precisely aligned, as are the troughs. The amplitude of each wave being X . It produces pure constructive wave. The disturbances add resulting in a new wave with twice the amplitude of the individual waves that is two X but of same wavelength.
Figure 16.36 Pure constructive interference of two identical waves produces one with twice the amplitude, but the same wavelength.
The graph shows two identical waves that arrive exactly out of phase. The crests of one wave are aligned with the trough of another wave. Each wave has amplitude equal to X. As the disturbances are in the opposite directions, they cancel out each other, resulting in zero amplitude which is shown as the third figure showing a green straight line, that is, the waves cancel each other producing pure destructive interference.
Figure 16.37 Pure destructive interference of two identical waves produces zero amplitude, or complete cancellation.

While pure constructive and pure destructive interference do occur, they require precisely aligned identical waves. The superposition of most waves produces a combination of constructive and destructive interference and can vary from place to place and time to time. Sound from a stereo, for example, can be loud in one spot and quiet in another. Varying loudness means the sound waves add partially constructively and partially destructively at different locations. A stereo has at least two speakers creating sound waves, and waves can reflect from walls. All these waves superimpose. An example of sounds that vary over time from constructive to destructive is found in the combined whine of airplane jets heard by a stationary passenger. The combined sound can fluctuate up and down in volume as the sound from the two engines varies in time from constructive to destructive. These examples are of waves that are similar.

An example of the superposition of two dissimilar waves is shown in Figure 16.38. Here again, the disturbances add and subtract, producing a more complicated looking wave.

The graph shows two non-identical waves with different frequencies and wavelengths. In the first graph only one crest and one trough of the wave are seen. In the second figure five crests are seen in the same length. When they superimpose, the disturbance add and subtract, producing a more complicated looking wave with highly irregular amplitude and wavelength due to combined effect of constructive and destructive interference.
Figure 16.38 Superposition of non-identical waves exhibits both constructive and destructive interference.

Standing Waves

Sometimes waves do not seem to move; rather, they just vibrate in place. Unmoving waves can be seen on the surface of a glass of milk in a refrigerator, for example. Vibrations from the refrigerator motor create waves on the milk that oscillate up and down but do not seem to move across the surface. These waves are formed by the superposition of two or more moving waves, such as illustrated in Figure 16.39 for two identical waves moving in opposite directions. The waves move through each other with their disturbances adding as they go by. If the two waves have the same amplitude and wavelength, then they alternate between constructive and destructive interference. The resultant looks like a wave standing in place and, thus, is called a standing wave. Waves on the glass of milk are one example of standing waves. There are other standing waves, such as on guitar strings and in organ pipes. With the glass of milk, the two waves that produce standing waves may come from reflections from the side of the glass.

A closer look at earthquakes provides evidence for conditions appropriate for resonance, standing waves, and constructive and destructive interference. A building may be vibrated for several seconds with a driving frequency matching that of the natural frequency of vibration of the building—producing a resonance resulting in one building collapsing while neighboring buildings do not. Often buildings of a certain height are devastated while other taller buildings remain intact. The building height matches the condition for setting up a standing wave for that particular height. As the earthquake waves travel along the surface of Earth and reflect off denser rocks, constructive interference occurs at certain points. Often areas closer to the epicenter are not damaged while areas farther away are damaged.

Standing wave combinations of two waves is shown. At the time t is equal to zero. The waves are in the same phase so the amplitude of the superimposed wave is double that of wave one and two. In the second figure at time t is equal to one fourth of time period T , the waves are in opposite phase so their super imposed figure is a straight line. Again at the time t is equal to half the time period the waves are in the same phase and the process is repeated at t is equal to three fourth of time period and at the end of the time period T.
Figure 16.39 Standing wave created by the superposition of two identical waves moving in opposite directions. The oscillations are at fixed locations in space and result from alternately constructive and destructive interference.

Standing waves are also found on the strings of musical instruments and are due to reflections of waves from the ends of the string. Figure 16.40 and Figure 16.41 show three standing waves that can be created on a string that is fixed at both ends. Nodes are the points where the string does not move; more generally, nodes are where the wave disturbance is zero in a standing wave. The fixed ends of strings must be nodes, too, because the string cannot move there. The word antinode is used to denote the location of maximum amplitude in standing waves. Standing waves on strings have a frequency that is related to the propagation speed vwvw size 12{v rSub { size 8{w} } } {} of the disturbance on the string. The wavelength λλ size 12{λ} {} is determined by the distance between the points where the string is fixed in place.

The lowest frequency, called the fundamental frequency, is thus for the longest wavelength, which is seen to be λ1=2Lλ1=2L size 12{λ rSub { size 8{1} } =2`"L"} {}. Therefore, the fundamental frequency is f1=vw/λ1=vw/2Lf1=vw/λ1=vw/2L size 12{f rSub { size 8{1} } =v rSub { size 8{w} } /λ rSub { size 8{1} } =v rSub { size 8{w} } /2`"L"} {}. In this case, the overtones or harmonics are multiples of the fundamental frequency. As seen in Figure 16.41, the first harmonic can easily be calculated since λ2=Lλ2=L size 12{λ rSub { size 8{2} } =L} {}. Thus, f2=vw/λ2=vw/2L=2f1f2=vw/λ2=vw/2L=2f1 size 12{f rSub { size 8{2} } =v rSub { size 8{w} } /λ rSub { size 8{2} } =v rSub { size 8{w} } /2`"L"=2f rSub { size 8{1} } } {}. Similarly, f3=3f1f3=3f1 size 12{f rSub { size 8{3} } =3f rSub { size 8{1} } } {}, and so on. All of these frequencies can be changed by adjusting the tension in the string. The greater the tension, the greater vwvw size 12{v rSub { size 8{w} } } {} is and the higher the frequencies. This observation is familiar to anyone who has ever observed a string instrument being tuned. We will see in later chapters that standing waves are crucial to many resonance phenomena, such as in sounding boxes on string instruments.

The graph shows a wave with wavelength lambda one equal to L, which has two loops. There three nodes and two antinodes in the figure. The length of one loop is L.
Figure 16.40 The figure shows a string oscillating at its fundamental frequency.
first overtone is shown as the wave length if lambda two is L and there are three nodes and two antinodes in the figure. For first overtone the frequency f two is equal to two times f one.
Figure 16.41 First and second overtones are shown.


Striking two adjacent keys on a piano produces a warbling combination usually considered to be unpleasant. The superposition of two waves of similar but not identical frequencies is the culprit. Another example is often noticeable in jet aircraft, particularly the two-engine variety, while taxiing. The combined sound of the engines goes up and down in loudness. This varying loudness happens because the sound waves have similar but not identical frequencies. The discordant warbling of the piano and the fluctuating loudness of the jet engine noise are both due to alternately constructive and destructive interference as the two waves go in and out of phase. Figure 16.42 illustrates this graphically.

The graph shows the superimposition of two similar but non-identical waves. Beats are produced by alternating destructive and constructive waves with equal amplitude but different frequencies. The resultant wave is the one with rising and falling amplitude over different intervals of time.
Figure 16.42 Beats are produced by the superposition of two waves of slightly different frequencies but identical amplitudes. The waves alternate in time between constructive interference and destructive interference, giving the resulting wave a time-varying amplitude.

The wave resulting from the superposition of two similar-frequency waves has a frequency that is the average of the two. This wave fluctuates in amplitude, or beats, with a frequency called the beat frequency. We can determine the beat frequency by adding two waves together mathematically. Note that a wave can be represented at one point in space as

x=XcostT=Xcosft,x=XcostT=Xcosft, size 12{x=X" cos"` left ( { {2π t} over {T} } right )=X" cos " left (2π ital "ft" right )","} {}

where f=1/Tf=1/T size 12{f= {1} slash {T} } {} is the frequency of the wave. Adding two waves that have different frequencies but identical amplitudes produces a resultant

x=x1+x2.x=x1+x2. size 12{x=x rSub { size 8{1} } +x rSub { size 8{2} } "."} {}

More specifically,

x=Xcosf1t+Xcosf2t.x=Xcosf1t+Xcosf2t. size 12{x=X"cos" left (2π`f rSub { size 8{1} } t right )+X"cos" left (2π`f rSub { size 8{2} } t right )"."} {}

Using a trigonometric identity, it can be shown that

x=2XcosπfBtcosfavet,x=2XcosπfBtcosfavet, size 12{x=2X"cos" left (π`f rSub { size 8{B} } t right )"cos" left (2π`f rSub { size 8{"ave"} } t right )","} {}


f B = f 1 f 2 f B = f 1 f 2 size 12{f rSub { size 8{B} } = lline f rSub { size 8{1} } - f rSub { size 8{2} } rline } {}

is the beat frequency, and favefave size 12{f rSub { size 8{"ave"} } } {} is the average of f1f1 size 12{f rSub { size 8{1} } } {} and f2f2 size 12{f rSub { size 8{2} } } {}. These results mean that the resultant wave has twice the amplitude and the average frequency of the two superimposed waves, but it also fluctuates in overall amplitude at the beat frequency fBfB size 12{f rSub { size 8{"B"} } } {}. The first cosine term in the expression effectively causes the amplitude to go up and down. The second cosine term is the wave with frequency favefave size 12{f rSub { size 8{"ave"} } } {}. This result is valid for all types of waves. However, if it is a sound wave, providing the two frequencies are similar, then what we hear is an average frequency that gets louder and softer (or warbles) at the beat frequency.

Real World Connections: Tuning Forks

The MIT physics demo entitled “Tuning Forks: Resonance and Beat Frequency” provides a qualitative picture of how wave interference produces beats.

Description: Two identical forks and sounding boxes are placed next to each other. Striking one tuning fork will cause the other to resonate at the same frequency. When a weight is attached to one tuning fork, they are no longer identical. Thus, one will not cause the other to resonate. When two different forks are struck at the same time, the interference of their pitches produces beats.

Real World Connections: Jump Rop

This is a fun activity with which to learn about interference and superposition. Take a jump rope and hold it at the two ends with one of your friends. While each of you is holding the rope, snap your hands to produce a wave from each side. Record your observations and see if they match with the following:

  1. One wave starts from the right end and travels to the left end of the rope.
  2. Another wave starts at the left end and travels to the right end of the rope.
  3. The waves travel at the same speed.
  4. The shape of the waves depends on the way the person snaps his or her hands.
  5. There is a region of overlap.
  6. The shapes of the waves are identical to their original shapes after they overlap.

Now, snap the rope up and down and ask your friend to snap his or her end of the rope sideways. The resultant that one sees here is the vector sum of two individual displacements.

This activity illustrates superposition and interference. When two or more waves interact with each other at a point, the disturbance at that point is given by the sum of the disturbances each wave will produce in the absence of the other. This is the principle of superposition. Interference is a result of superposition of two or more waves to form a resultant wave of greater or lower amplitude.

While beats may sometimes be annoying in audible sounds, we will find that beats have many applications. Observing beats is a very useful way to compare similar frequencies. There are applications of beats as apparently disparate as in ultrasonic imaging and radar speed traps.

Check Your Understanding

Imagine you are holding one end of a jump rope, and your friend holds the other. If your friend holds her end still, you can move your end up and down, creating a transverse wave. If your friend then begins to move her end up and down, generating a wave in the opposite direction, what resultant wave forms would you expect to see in the jump rope?

Check Your Understanding

Define nodes and antinodes.

Check Your Understanding

You hook up a stereo system. When you test the system, you notice that in one corner of the room, the sounds seem dull. In another area, the sounds seem excessively loud. Describe how the sound moving about the room could result in these effects.

PhET Explorations

Wave Interference

Make waves with a dripping faucet, audio speaker, or laser! Add a second source or a pair of slits to create an interference pattern.

Figure 16.43
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