Archives of Ask A Scientist!

About "Ask A Scientist!"

On September 17th, 1998 the Ithaca Journal ran its first "Ask A Scientist!" article in which Professor Neil Ashcroft , who was then the director of CCMR, answered the question "What is Jupiter made of?" Since then, we have received over 1,000 questions from students and adults from all over the world. Select questions are answered weekly and published in the Ithaca Journal and on our web site. "Ask A Scientist!" reaches more than 21,000 Central New York residents through the Ithaca Journal and countless others around the world throught the "Ask a Scientist!" web site.

Across disciplines and across the state, from Nobel Prize winning scientist David Lee to notable science education advocate Bill Nye, researchers and scientists have been called on to respond to these questions. For more than seven years, kids - and a few adults - have been submitting their queries to find out the answer to life's everyday questions.

Previous Week's Question Published: 21 June, 2006 Next Week's Question
Vibration frequency, 'slip-stick' effect makes wine glasses sing
Why do crystal glasses give off sound when you rub them with a wet finger?

What a terrific question! You already know that rubbing your wet finger around the rim of a glass can make a sound — a very gentle musical note that is unlike the sound of just about any other common musical instrument you can imagine. I have a special interest in your question because I often play music on glasses. I've assembled my own set of more than 20 wineglasses into a musical instrument — a "glass harmonica" — that has a musical range of two octaves, just like on a piano keyboard. In fact, the great composer Mozart actually wrote music for the glass harmonica. The answer to your question involves several important science principles, so I'll try to break it down into parts.

How does a glass make a sound? When a glass makes sound, it is vibrating much like a bell with its rim and sides moving in and out very quickly — several hundred times each second. We call this the vibration's "frequency" in cycles per second. Just as a swing likes to swing back and forth at its own special frequency, vibrating objects like bells and glasses have their own special "natural frequencies" at which they like to vibrate. When you tap the rim of a glass gently with a spoon, the glass vibrates at its special natural frequency and sings out a note of the corresponding musical pitch. Whether the vibration frequency and note pitch are high or low depends on the glass's size and shape — how tall it is, how fat it is, how thick its walls are, of what kind of material it is made. Although good crystal glasses may work best, less expensive glasses can also work well.

How are different parts of the glass moving when it vibrates? The rim and sides of the glass vibrate together in the pattern shown in the diagram, as viewed looking down on the glass from above it. The rim's shape changes repeatedly and rapidly, several hundred cycles each second, between the two elliptical or egg shapes shown. When points A and B move inward, points C and D move outward, and vice-versa half a cycle later. The amount of vibration of an actual glass is much less than the diagram shows, but this at least gives you some idea of what's happening to the glass. As the sides of the glass vibrate, they push air back and forth creating sound vibrations in the air that travel to your ears.

How does rubbing your wet finger around the rim make the glass vibrate? As your finger moves along the rim, it is alternately slipping and sticking to the rim, just like a violin bow slips and sticks as it moves across a violin string. This is called "slip-stick" motion. It's the reason for squeaking of door hinges or the squealing of chalk being dragged across a blackboard. You can demonstrate slip-stick motion by dragging your fingers across the surface of an inflated balloon. This makes a rather funny sound as the balloon vibrates. But there the vibration's pattern and frequency depend mostly on how you drag your fingers across the balloon — how fast they move and how hard you press. When you rub your finger along the rim of a glass, you produce the vibration pattern shown in the diagram with its own special natural frequency for that glass. Changing the speed or pressure you use with your finger can make the sound louder or softer and make the glass vibrate and sing more easily or not, but it doesn't change the vibration frequency. Wetting your finger prepares its surface and the rim of glass to make the slip-stick motion easier to produce, just like rubbing rosin on a violin bow prepares the bow and string to slip and stick and make their sounds more easily.

How does the finger's motion along the rim produce the vibration pattern shown in the diagram? Although the greatest movement of the glass's rim is in and out at points A, B, C, and D, there are smaller movements at other points that can be sideways along the rim. The movements of several of these points (E, F, G, and H), which are in-between points A, B, C, and D, are shown with smaller arrows. The slip-stick vibration of your moving finger can get the glass's vibration going by pushing the vibration along the rim at these in-between points. But your finger doesn't stay in one place, so the vibration pattern has to follow your finger around the rim. A neat way to see the vibration pattern is to fill a glass almost full of water and then rub your finger around the rim. Now when the glass sings its note, you can see ripples in the water near the sides of the glass. These ripples are largest near points A, B, C, and D in the vibration pattern, and the whole pattern rotates around the glass to follow your finger.

You'll also notice that adding water to the glass lowers the pitch of the note the glass sings. The water is now part of the vibration and can change its natural frequency. By adding different amounts of water to different glasses, you can produce a whole series of different musical notes and play songs! You will have made your own "glass harmonica." Perhaps you can discuss and experiment with singing glasses in your school. What kinds of glasses work best? Which shapes produce high notes or low notes? What can you do to make the sounds most easily? How does adding water affect the sounds? As you can see, the science behind singing glasses involves lots of neat science principles, and you can use all of them together to learn about vibrations and to have fun playing music!