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Created by: Team Physics - Examples.com, Last Updated: July 11, 2024


Oscillation refers to the repeated back-and-forth movement of an object around a central point or equilibrium position. This motion occurs in a regular and periodic manner, where the object moves to and fro in a symmetrical path over time. Oscillations can be seen in various physical systems, such as the swinging of a pendulum, the vibrations of a guitar string, or the alternating current in electrical circuits. The key characteristics of oscillatory motion include its amplitude, frequency, and period, which describe the extent, rate, and duration of the oscillation cycle, respectively. These parameters are often measured in specific units of time, units of vibration, and units of sound to quantify and analyze the motion accurately.

What Is Oscillation?

Oscillation in physics refers to the repetitive back-and-forth movement of an object around a central point or between two states. Common examples include a swinging pendulum, vibrating guitar strings, and alternating electrical currents. Oscillations are characterized by amplitude, frequency, and period, and are essential in various physical systems and applications.

Oscillation Formula

In physics, oscillations are often described using mathematical formulas. One of the fundamental equations governing simple harmonic motion (a type of oscillation) is the position function of an oscillating object:

x(t) = A cos (ωt+ϕ)


  • x(t): The displacement of the object at time t
  • A: The amplitude of oscillation, representing the maximum displacement from the equilibrium position
  • ω: The angular frequency, which determines how quickly the oscillation occurs and is given by ω=2πf, where f is the frequency of the oscillation
  • t: The time variable
  • ϕ: The phase constant, which determines the initial angle at t = 0

Examples of Oscillations

Examples of Oscillations
  1. Simple Pendulum: A mass swinging back and forth on a string or rod under gravity.
  2. Mass-Spring System: A mass attached to a spring oscillating around its equilibrium position.
  3. Tuning Fork: A metal fork that vibrates at a specific frequency when struck.
  4. Electromagnetic Waves: Light, radio waves, and other forms of oscillating electric and magnetic fields.
  5. Heartbeat: The regular rhythmic contraction and relaxation of the heart muscle.
  6. Alternating Current (AC): Electric current that periodically reverses direction in a circuit.
  7. Circular Motion: Objects moving in a circular path, like a satellite orbiting a planet.
  8. Sound Waves: Oscillations of air molecules that propagate as waves, producing sound.
  9. Vibrating Guitar String: A plucked guitar string oscillates, producing musical notes.
  10. Quartz Crystal Oscillator: Used in watches and clocks, it oscillates at a precise frequency to keep time.

Examples of Simple Harmonic Oscillation

  1. Vibrating Guitar String: When plucked, a guitar string oscillates back and forth in a simple harmonic motion.
  2. Oscillating Rod: A rod fixed at one end and free to oscillate up and down at the other end.
  3. Swing: A child on a playground swing moves back and forth in a periodic motion.
  4. Water Waves in a Ripple Tank: Regular, repeating waves formed in a tank of water.
  5. Air Column in a Pipe: The oscillation of air molecules in a pipe, such as in a flute or organ pipe.
  6. Oscillating Piston in an Engine: The back-and-forth motion of a piston in an internal combustion engine.
  7. Electromagnetic Oscillations in an LC Circuit: An inductor-capacitor circuit where energy oscillates between the magnetic field of the inductor and the electric field of the capacitor.
  8. Damped Oscillations in a Shock Absorber: The oscillation of a car’s shock absorber is an example of damped simple harmonic motion.
  9. Oscillating Balance Wheel in a Watch: The balance wheel in a mechanical watch oscillates back and forth, regulating time.
  10. Bridge Oscillations in Response to Wind or Traffic: Bridges can oscillate in a simple harmonic manner under certain conditions of wind or load.

Examples of Damped Oscillation

  1. Car Shock Absorbers: When a car goes over a bump, the shock absorbers dampen the oscillations of the car’s springs to prevent continuous bouncing.
  2. Piano String: When a piano key is struck, the string vibrates and gradually stops due to the internal damping of the string and the surrounding air.
  3. Swinging Door with a Hydraulic Closer: A door fitted with a hydraulic closer will swing shut and settle into its closed position without continuously swinging back and forth.
  4. Bungee Jumping: After the initial fall, the bungee cord oscillates but the amplitude of the jumps gradually decreases until the jumper comes to a stop.
  5. Electrical Circuit with Resistor: In an RLC circuit, the resistor causes the electrical oscillations to gradually diminish over time.
  6. Building Swaying During an Earthquake: The structure of a building can oscillate and the materials provide internal damping to gradually reduce the motion.
  7. Spring-Mass System in a Viscous Medium: A mass on a spring moving through a viscous liquid (like oil) experiences damping due to the liquid’s resistance.
  8. Pendulum in Air: A pendulum swinging in air will gradually come to a stop due to air resistance acting as a damping force.
  9. Tuning Fork in Air: When struck, a tuning fork’s vibrations gradually diminish as it loses energy to the surrounding air.
  10. Gymnast on a Trampoline: After initial jumps, the amplitude of a gymnast’s bounces gradually decreases due to the damping effect of the trampoline’s material and air resistance.

Examples of Overdamped Oscillation

  1. Slow-Closing Door with Strong Hydraulic Closer: A door with a very strong hydraulic closer that prevents it from swinging back and forth and instead slowly brings it to the closed position without oscillation.
  2. Car Suspension with Heavy Damping: A car’s suspension system designed with very heavy damping to ensure that, after hitting a bump, the car quickly returns to its equilibrium position without bouncing.
  3. A Clock’s Balance Wheel with High Friction: In some mechanical clocks, a high friction mechanism in the balance wheel can cause it to return to its resting position without oscillating back and forth.
  4. Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS) with High Damping: Certain MEMS devices, used in sensors and actuators, are designed to be overdamped to avoid oscillations in response to movements or signals.
  5. Pendulum in a Highly Viscous Fluid: A pendulum immersed in a thick, viscous fluid like glycerin, which moves very slowly back to the equilibrium position without oscillating.
  6. Electrical RLC Circuit with High Resistance: An RLC circuit (resistor-inductor-capacitor) with a resistance high enough to prevent oscillations and allow the system to return to equilibrium slowly.
  7. Damped Vibrations in Heavy Machinery: Machinery with built-in dampers that are so strong they prevent any oscillatory motion after a disturbance.
  8. Seismograph with High Damping: A seismograph designed to avoid oscillation and return to equilibrium slowly after detecting ground movements.
  9. Building Stabilizers with Heavy Damping: Stabilizers in buildings, particularly in skyscrapers, designed to avoid oscillation and quickly dissipate energy from movements due to wind or seismic activity.
  10. Mechanical Watch with a Strong Damping System: A mechanical watch where the damping system is so strong that the oscillations of the balance wheel are heavily damped, causing it to return to its rest position without oscillation.

Types of Oscillation

Oscillations can be classified into several types based on their characteristics and the nature of the system involved. Here are the main types of oscillation:

1. Free Oscillation

Free oscillation occurs when a system oscillates naturally without any external force after being initially displaced. The system’s internal forces, such as the restoring force in a spring-mass system, govern the motion. These oscillations have a constant amplitude and frequency, determined by the system’s physical properties.
Examples: A mass attached to a spring and released from a stretched position.
A pendulum swinging in a vacuum.

2. Damped Oscillation

Damped oscillation occurs when the amplitude of oscillation decreases over time due to the presence of resistive forces, such as friction or air resistance. The system loses energy, causing the motion to gradually cease.

Types of Damping:
Light Damping: The system oscillates with gradually decreasing amplitude.
Critical Damping: The system returns to equilibrium as quickly as possible without oscillating.
Heavy Damping: The system returns to equilibrium slowly without completing a full oscillation.
Example: A swinging pendulum in air gradually comes to rest.

3. Forced Oscillation

Forced oscillation occurs when an external periodic force drives the system, causing it to oscillate at the frequency of the driving force. If the driving frequency matches the system’s natural frequency, resonance can occur, leading to large amplitude oscillations.
Example: A child being pushed on a swing at regular intervals.

4. Undamped Oscillation

Undamped oscillation refers to ideal oscillations without any energy loss. In this type, the amplitude remains constant over time, and the system oscillates indefinitely. This is a theoretical concept since real-world systems always experience some damping.
Example: A frictionless pendulum in an ideal environment.

5. Nonlinear Oscillation

Nonlinear oscillation occurs when the restoring force is not directly proportional to the displacement. These systems do not follow Hooke’s Law, resulting in more complex behavior. Nonlinear oscillations can lead to phenomena like chaos.
Example: Large amplitude oscillations of a simple pendulum where the angle is not small.

6. Linear Oscillation

Linear oscillation occurs when the restoring force is directly proportional to the displacement. These systems obey Hooke’s Law and exhibit simple harmonic motion.
Example: Small amplitude oscillations of a spring-mass system.

7. Coupled Oscillation

Coupled oscillation involves two or more oscillating systems interacting with each other. The energy can be transferred between the systems, leading to complex oscillatory behavior.
Example: Two pendulums connected by a spring.

Difference between Oscillation and Vibration

DefinitionAny motion that repeats itself in a regular cycle around a central point or equilibrium position.Rapid oscillatory motion of an object, often around a fixed point, within a limited range.
ExamplesSwinging of a pendulum, motion of a spring-mass system, alternating current in electrical circuits.Vibrating guitar strings, engine vibrations, buzzing of a mobile phone.
FrequencyTypically lower frequency.Generally higher frequency.
AmplitudeCan be large or small depending on the system.Usually smaller amplitude compared to oscillations.
ContextCommonly observed in mechanical systems, electrical circuits, and natural phenomena like tides and planetary orbits.Often associated with mechanical systems, sound waves, and structural analysis.
Motion TypeAny periodic motion (e.g., pendulum, spring-mass).Typically rapid, repetitive motion (e.g., guitar string, engine part).


What is the period of oscillation?

The period of oscillation is the time it takes for an object to complete one full cycle of motion.

What is the frequency of oscillation?

Frequency is the number of complete oscillations an object makes in one second, measured in Hertz (Hz).

What is amplitude in oscillation?

Amplitude is the maximum displacement of an object from its equilibrium position during oscillation.

What is damping in oscillations?

Damping is the gradual loss of amplitude in an oscillating system due to energy dissipation, often as heat.

What is resonance in oscillations?

Resonance occurs when an oscillating system is driven at its natural frequency, resulting in maximum amplitude.

What is a restoring force?

The restoring force is a force that brings the oscillating object back toward its equilibrium position.

What is the natural frequency?

The natural frequency is the frequency at which a system naturally oscillates when not subjected to external forces.

What is a phase in oscillation?

Phase refers to the position of a point in time on the oscillatory cycle, often measured in degrees or radians.

What is a pendulum?

A pendulum is a weight suspended from a pivot that swings back and forth under the influence of gravity, exhibiting oscillatory motion.

What is the difference between damped and undamped oscillations?

Damped oscillations gradually decrease in amplitude due to energy loss, while undamped oscillations maintain constant amplitude.

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