Traveling waves

17 How sound moves

Speed of sound

There’s a delay between when a sound is created and when it is heard. In everyday life, the delay is usually too short to notice. However, the delay can be noticeable if the distance between source and detector is large enough. You see lightning before you hear the thunder. If you’ve sat in the outfield seats in a baseball stadium, you’ve experienced the delay between seeing the player hit the ball and the sound of the “whack.” Life experiences tell us that sound travels fast, but not nearly as fast as light does. Careful experiments confirm this idea.

The speed of sound in air is roughly 340 m/s. The actual value depends somewhat on the temperature and humidity. In everyday terms, sound travels about the length of three and a half foot ball fields every second- about 50% faster than a Boeing 747 (roughly 250 m/s). This may seem fast, but it’s tiny compared to light, which travels roughly a million times faster than sound (roughly 300,000,000 m/s).

The medium

Sound requires some material in which to propagate (i.e. travel). This material sound travels through is called the medium. You can show that sound requires a medium by putting a cell phone inside a glass jar connected to a vacuum pump. As the air is removed from the jar, the cell phone’s ringer gets quieter and quieter. A youTube video (2:05 min) produced by the UNSW PhysClips project shows the demo with a drumming toy monkey [1] instead of a cell phone.

What affects the speed of sound?

Sound travels at different speeds though different materials. The physical properties of the medium are the only factors that affect the speed of sound- nothing else matters.

The speed of sound in a material is determined mainly by two properties- the stiffness of the material and the density of the material. Sound travels fastest through materials that are stiff and light. In general, sound travels fastest through solids, slower through liquids and slowest through gasses. (See the table on this page). This may seem backwards- after all, metals are quite dense. However, the high density of metals is more than offset by far greater stiffness (compared to liquids and solids).

The speed of sound in air depends mainly on temperature. The speed of sound is 331 m/s in dry air at 0o Celsius and increases slightly with temperature- about 0.6 m/s for every 1o Celsius for temperatures commonly found on Earth. Though speed of sound in air also depends on humidity, the effect is tiny- sound travels only about 1 m/s faster in air with 100% humidity air at 20 o C than it does in completely dry air at the same temperature.

Material Speed of sound (m/s)
Dry air at 0o C 331
Dry air at 20o C 343
Water 1497
Sea water 1533
Copper 3560
Aluminum 5100

Nothing else matters

The properties of the medium are the only factors that affect the speed of sound- nothing else matters.

Frequency of the sound does not matter- high frequency sounds travel at the same speed as low frequency sounds. If you’ve ever listened to music, you’ve witnessed this-  the low notes and the high notes that were made simultaneously reach you simultaneously, even if you are far from the stage. If you’ve heard someone shout from across a field, you’ve noticed that the entire shout sound (which contains many different frequencies at once) reaches you at the same time. If different frequencies traveled at different rates, some frequencies would arrive before others.

The amplitude of the sound does not matter- loud sounds and quiet ones travel at the same speed. Whisper or yell- it doesn’t matter. The sound still takes the same amount of time to reach the listener.  You’ve probably heard that you can figure out how far away the lightning by counting the seconds between when you see lightning and hear thunder. If the speed of sound depended on loudness, this rule of thumb would have to account for loudness- yet there is nothing in the rule about loud vs. quiet thunder. The rule of thumb works the same for all thunder- regardless of loudness. That’s because the speed of sound doesn’t depend on amplitude.

Stop to thinks

  1. Which takes longer to cross a football field: the sound of a high pitched chirp emitted by a fruit bat or the (relatively) low pitched sound emitted by a trumpet?
  2. Which sound takes longer to travel 100 meters: the sound of a snapping twig in the forest or the sound of a gunshot?
  3. Which takes longer to travel the distance of a football field: the low pitched sound of a whale or the somewhat higher pitched sound of a human being?

Constant speed

Sound travels at a constant speed. Sound does not speed up or slow down as it travels (unless the properties of the material the sound is going through changes). I know what you’re thinking- how is that possible? Sounds die out as they travel, right? True. That means sounds must slow down and come to a stop, right? Wrong. As sound travels, its amplitude decreases- but that’s not the same thing as slowing down. Sound (in air) covers roughly 340 meters each and every second, even as its amplitude shrinks. Eventually, the amplitude gets small enough that the sound is undetectable. A sound’s amplitude shrinks as it travels, but its speed remains constant.

The basic equation for constant speed motion (shown below) applies to sound.


In this equation, d represents the distance traveled by the sound, t represents the amount of time it took to go that distance and v represents the speed.

Rule of thumb for lightning example

Example: Thunder and Lightning


The rule of thumb for figuring out how far away a lightning strike is from you is this:

Count the number of seconds between when you see the lightning and hear the thunder. Divide the number of seconds by five to find out how many miles away the lightning hit.

According to this rule, what is the speed of sound in air? How does the speed of sound implied by this rule compare to 340 m/s?


Identify important physics concept: This question is about speed of sound.


List known and unknown quantities (with letter names and units):

At first glance, it doesn’t look like there’s enough information to solve the problem. We were asked to find speed, but not given either a time or a distance. However, the problem does allow us to figure out a distance if we know the time- “Divide the number of seconds by five to find out how many miles away the lightning hit.” So, let’s make up a time and see what happens; if the time is 10 seconds, the rule of thumb says that the distance should be 2 miles.

v= \: ?

d=2 \: miles

t=10 \: seconds

You might ask “Is making stuff up OK here?” The answer is YES! If the rule of thumb is right, it should work no matter what time we choose. (To check if the rule is OK, we should probably test it with more than just one distance-time combination, but we’ll assume the rule is OK for now).

Do the algebra: The equation is already solved for speed. Move on to the next step.

Do unit conversions (if needed) then plug in numbers: If you just plug in the numbers, the speed comes out in miles per second:

v = \frac{2 \: miles} {10 \: seconds}=0.2 \: \frac{miles} {second}

We are asked to compare this speed to 340 m/s, so a unit conversion is in order; since there are 1609 meters in a mile:

v =0.2 \: \frac{miles} {second}*\frac{1609 \: meters} {1 \:mile}=320 \frac{m}{s}

Reflect on the answer:

  • The answer for speed from the rule of thumb is less than 10% off the actual value of roughly 340 m/s- surprisingly close!
  • At the beginning, we assumed a time of 10 seconds. Does the result hold up for other choices? A quick check shows that it does! For instance, if we use a time of 5 seconds, the rule of thumb gives a distance of 1 mile, and the math still gives a speed of 0.2 miles/second. The speed will be the same no matter what time we pick. The reason is this:  The more time it takes the thunder to arrive, the farther away the lightning strike is, but the speed remains the same. In the equation for speed, both time and distance change by the same factor and the overall fraction remains unchanged.


Stop to think answers

  1. Both sounds take the same amount of time. (High and low pitched sounds travel at the same speed).
  2. Both sounds take the same amount of time. (Quiet sounds and loud sounds travel at the same speed).
  3. The sound of the whale travels the distance in less time- assuming sound from the whale travels in water and sound from the human travels in air. Sound travels faster in water than in air. (The info about frequency was given just to throw you off- frequency doesn’t matter).


  1. Wolfe, J. (2014, February 20). Properties of Sound. Retrieved from


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Understanding Sound by abbottds is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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