What types of sound can humans hear? What types of materials are soundproof? How is the volume of a sound changed? Is the speed of sound the same in all types of media, such as water or air? — JM, Fairfax, VA
In air, sounds are disturbances that consist of compressions and rarefactions—the air molecules are packed either more tightly or less tightly than normal. These regions of too high or too low pressure and density move through the air at about 330 meters per second—the speed of sound and when they pass our ears, we may hear them as sound. As a particular sound passes our ears, the air pressure rises and falls and then rises again, over and over. The number of full cycles—a pressure rise then a pressure fall—that pass our ears each second determines the pitch of the sound we hear. The lowest pitch that our ears are sensitive to is about 20 cycles per second and the highest pitch that we can detect is about 20,000 cycles per second. While other pitches are possible, we simply can’t hear them with our ears.
A sound’s volume is determined by the extent to which the air pressure fluctuates as the sound passes. A loud sound involves a stronger pressure fluctuation than a soft sound. Soundproof materials are ones that decrease the volume of the sound passing through them by weakening the pressure fluctuations. There are two ways to decrease the volume of sound passing through a material: by absorbing the sound or by reflecting it. Soft materials such as carpet or foam rubber absorb sound by allowing the sound’s pressure fluctuations to waste their energies bending the materials. The sound’s energy is converted into thermal energy. Hard, dense materials reflect sounds by making the sounds change speed. Sound travels quickly through most solids and liquids—typically about 5 to 10 kilometers per second. Whenever a wave changes speed in passing from one medium to another, part of that wave is reflected. Thus as sound speeds up in entering a hard surface from the air and as that sound slows down when reentering the air, much of the sound reflects.