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date: 16 October 2019


  • Charles Taylor
  •  and Murray Campbell


This article gives an introduction to the scientific aspects of sound. For information on related topics see Acoustics (for matters connected with rooms, instruments and the human voice), Hearing and psychoacoustics, Psychology of music and Recorded sound; for the history of the study of sound, see Physics of music.

Greek and Roman sources include numerous references to scientific reflections on the nature and origin of sound, and these seem to be the earliest recorded thoughts indicating any attitude to music other than the purely aesthetic. Many classical observers, however, followed the Aristotelian method of thinking about an experiment and imagining the results, a method which, though of undoubted value as a starting-point, usually led to conflicting conclusions if not checked against real experiments. Also, a great deal of mysticism, especially concerning numerical relationships, tended to obscure more scientific ideas.

There followed a gap of 15–16 centuries during which there was no development in the scientific study of sound. But during the 16th and 17th centuries almost all of the great scientists of the time devoted at least some of their attention to the subject. Galileo made the first serious study of vibrating strings and gave a plausible explanation of the origin of consonance and dissonance, one that remains generally acceptable. He also introduced the idea of demonstration by analogue, including the use of pendula to demonstrate harmonic ratios. Boyle performed the classical experiment to show that a medium is needed for sound transmission; Descartes made studies of resonance; Hooke recognized that a sound of definite pitch can be derived from a rotating wheel; Mersenne formulated laws of vibrating strings (though Galileo had laid firm foundations in unpublished work); and Newton was the first to make a theoretical derivation of the velocity of sound and to compare it with experimental results....

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Journal of the Acoustical Society of America