Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Sound Vibrations
Name: Carol
Status: other
Age: 30s
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 1999 

When a guitar's string is plucked, what causes the actual SOUND we hear - the movement of the string, or the displacement of air caused by the string? Would we be able to hear sound on the moon, where there is no air?


Plucking the string creates a sound wave in the air surrounding the string; this sound wave is then communicated through the air in directions away from the string, similar to the way a wave moves away from where a rock is tossed into a pond. Note that the wave dissipates or weakens somewhat as it travels from the source. Eventually the wave is depleted in the lake, and similarly, the sound of a plucked guitar string is clearly not heard across town unless there is adequate amplification. One can also use a telephone or similar device which keeps the sound from being depleted over a distance.

The sound would not travel in the absence of a carrier. The string would vibrate, but there would be nothing to carry the vibration to your ear. Try tossing a rock into an empty lake bed. Do you notice any visible waves? Without water in the lake, it is not likely.

Thanks for using NEWTON!

Dr. Rupkin

The vibrating guitar string sends a compression wave through the air, much like a rock thrown into a pond sends a ripple outward. When the compression wave reaches your eardrum, it causes the eardrum to move back and forth, which your brain recognizes as a sound. The only way you would be able to hear a sound on the moon is if it traveled through the ground and was picked up either by your bones or the air in your space suit. In a vacuum, the guitar string would vibrate longer than in air, because the air won't carry away its vibrational energy. That doesn't gain you any duration of tone, however, because it's precisely that transfer of energy to the air that enables you to hear the sound in the first place.

Richard Barrans Jr., Ph.D.

The movement of the string causes it; the displacement of the air conveys it. No.

Tim Mooney

Most of the sound travels through the air. However, if you were to attach one end of the string to your skull you would 'hear' the sound as it was transmitted through the bone directly from the string.

Dr. Bradburn

Click here to return to the Physics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory