Sine wave explained

The sine wave or sinusoid is a function that occurs often in mathematics, physics, signal processing, audition, electrical engineering, and many other fields. Its most basic form is:


which describes a wavelike function of time (t) with:


(radians per second)

The sine wave is important in physics because it retains its waveshape when added to another sine wave of the same frequency and arbitrary phase. It is the only periodic waveform that has this property. This property leads to its importance in Fourier analysis and makes it acoustically unique.

General form

In general, the function may also have:

which looks like this:


The wavenumber is related to the angular frequency by:.


where λ is the wavelength, f is the frequency, and c is the speed of propagation.

This equation gives a sine wave for a single dimension, thus the generalized equation given above gives the amplitude of the wave at a position x at time t along a single line.This could, for example, be considered the value of a wave along a wire.

In two or three spatial dimensions, the same equation describes a travelling plane wave if position x and wavenumber k are interpreted as vectors, and their product as a dot product. For more complex waves such as the height of a water wave in a pond after a stone has been dropped in, more complex equations are needed.


This wave pattern occurs often in nature, including ocean waves, sound waves, and light waves. Also, a rough sinusoidal pattern can be seen in plotting average daily temperatures for each day of the year, although the graph may resemble an inverted cosine wave.

Graphing the voltage of an alternating current gives a sine wave pattern. In fact, graphing the voltage of direct current full-wave rectification system gives an absolute value sine wave pattern, where the wave stays on the positive side of the x-axis.

A cosine wave is said to be "sinusoidal", because


which is also a sine wave with a phase-shift of π/2. Because of this "head start", it is often said that the cosine function leads the sine function or the sine lags the cosine.

The human ear can recognize single sine waves because sounds with such a waveform sound "clean" or "clear" to humans; some sounds that approximate a pure sine wave are whistling, a crystal glass set to vibrate by running a wet finger around its rim, and the sound made by a tuning fork.

To the human ear, a sound that is made up of more than one sine wave will either sound "noisy" or will have detectable harmonics; this may be described as a different timbre.

Fourier series

In 1822, Joseph Fourier, a French mathematician, discovered that sinusoidal waves can be used as simple building blocks to 'make up' and describe nearly any periodic waveform including square waves or even the irregular sound waves made by human speech. The process is named Fourier analysis. Fourier used it as an analytical tool in the study of waves and heat flow. It is frequently used in signal processing and the statistical analysis of time series. It has found applications in many other scientific fields, including probability (in particular, the proof of the central limit theorem relies upon Fourier analysis), the geometry of numbers, the isoperimetric problem, Heisenberg's inequality, recurrence of random walks, and proofs of quadratic reciprocity. Also see Fourier series and Fourier transform.

See also