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IB DP Physics Study Notes

4.1.1 Basics of SHM

Simple Harmonic Motion (SHM) is pivotal in wave physics, underpinning our comprehension of oscillations. This section delves into the heart of SHM, explaining its core concept, the defining equation, and its graphic portrayals.

Unpacking Simple Harmonic Motion (SHM)

Simple Harmonic Motion, or SHM, is characterised by an object's periodic motion where a restoring force endeavours to return the body to its equilibrium position. The intriguing part is that this force is directly proportional to the displacement but always acts antithetically to it. Picture a swing: the farther you push it from its resting position, the harder it tries to return. For a detailed definition, refer to the definition of SHM.

Foundational Attributes of SHM

  • Restoring Force: This force, inherent in SHM, relentlessly acts to revert the object to equilibrium. As the object strays farther from equilibrium, this force intensifies, pulling the object back with increasing urgency.
  • Periodic and Oscillatory Nature: The object in SHM consistently oscillates, meandering to and fro through its equilibrium position. This regular, back-and-forth motion is rhythmic and predictable.
  • Amplitude's Role: Amplitude signifies the utmost displacement from equilibrium. It's paramount to comprehend that while amplitude dictates the maximum stretch or compression, it remains independent of SHM's period or frequency.
  • Tackling Frequency and Period: Two key players in SHM. Frequency elucidates the number of oscillations within a time frame, whereas the period reveals the duration for one full oscillation.

The Quintessential Equation of SHM

An iconic hallmark of SHM is its definitive equation that elucidates the relationship between an object's acceleration and its deviation from equilibrium. Represented as: a = -ω2 x. For more insights into damping, visit damping in SHM.

Breaking it down:

  • a represents the object's acceleration.
  • ω symbolises the angular frequency, intricately connected to the conventional frequency by ω = 2πf.
  • x is the object's displacement from equilibrium.

This mathematical representation accentuates a core principle of SHM: the object's acceleration is persistently steered towards equilibrium. Moreover, the farther the object is from equilibrium, the more pronounced its acceleration becomes.

Decoding SHM Through Graphs

SHM can be vividly visualised through graphical representations. These graphs unfurl the oscillatory essence of SHM, providing keen insights into its behaviour over time. To understand resonance in SHM, check out resonance in SHM.

  • Displacement-Time Graph: A quintessential sinusoidal curve. Here, the peaks (crests) depict the apex of positive displacement (amplitude), and the troughs convey the nadir of negative displacement. The x-axis, where the curve constantly intersects, represents the equilibrium position.
  • Velocity-Time Graph: Birthed from the displacement-time graph's gradient, this graph also embodies a sinusoidal nature, albeit with a phase shift. An intriguing observation is that velocity touches its zenith when displacement is at zero, and vice versa.
  • Acceleration-Time Graph: Drawing insights from the velocity-time graph's gradient, this graph, while sinusoidal, carries an added phase shift. Here, acceleration surges to its peak when displacement is maximised, hitting zero when displacement is null.

Applications: SHM in the Real World

While we remain anchored to the rudiments of SHM, it's enlightening to glimpse its real-world manifestations. SHM isn't an abstract concept; it's very much around us. For different types of damping in SHM, refer to types of damping.

  • Pendulums in Action: Displace a pendulum, and watch it oscillate in SHM. This predictable motion underlies the mechanics of traditional pendulum clocks.
  • Springs and SHM: Stretch or compress a spring, and upon release, it engages in SHM, striving to regain its resting state.
  • Molecular Vibrations: Delve into the microscopic realm, and you'll discern that molecular vibrations often resonate with SHM characteristics.

For more on resonance, see resonance.


The negative sign in the equation a = -ω2 x indicates the direction of the restoring force and acceleration in SHM. When an object is displaced from its equilibrium position, the restoring force and acceleration always act in the direction opposite to the displacement. Thus, the negative sign signifies this inverse relationship between the direction of acceleration and displacement.

Not all oscillations are considered Simple Harmonic Motion (SHM). SHM is a specific type of oscillatory motion where the restoring force (or torque, in the case of rotational systems) is directly proportional to the displacement from an equilibrium position and acts in the opposite direction. While many systems exhibit oscillatory behaviours, not all meet this strict definition. A system might oscillate but without a restoring force that's proportional to displacement, making its motion non-harmonic.

No, an object in SHM cannot exceed its maximum speed. The maximum speed in SHM occurs as the object passes through its equilibrium position. At this point, its potential energy is at a minimum, and its kinetic energy is at a maximum. As it moves away from this position, some of the kinetic energy is converted back to potential energy, and its speed decreases. The maximum speed can be calculated using the equation v_max = ωA, where ω is the angular frequency and A is the amplitude of the motion.

Gravity can act as the restoring force in some SHM systems. A classic example is the simple pendulum. When the pendulum is displaced from its equilibrium position, gravity exerts a torque that tries to return the pendulum to its lowest point. While gravity is the main force at play here, it's essential to note that the relationship between the gravitational torque and the angle of displacement is only linear for small angles, making the motion approximately simple harmonic.

The mass of an object in SHM does influence its period, but the exact effect depends on the nature of the system. For a simple pendulum, the period is independent of the mass, meaning it doesn't matter how heavy or light the pendulum bob is. However, for a mass-spring system, the period (T) is given by T = 2π√(m/k), where m is the mass and k is the spring constant. Here, as the mass increases, the period also increases, indicating that a heavier mass will oscillate more slowly than a lighter one, given the same spring.

Practice Questions

A child is on a swing and you notice that the swing returns to its original position every 2 seconds. Can this motion be considered Simple Harmonic Motion (SHM)? Justify your answer based on the characteristics of SHM.

The motion of the child on the swing can indeed be considered Simple Harmonic Motion (SHM) given certain assumptions. One of the foundational characteristics of SHM is its periodic and oscillatory nature, where an object moves back and forth through its equilibrium position in a regular and predictable manner. In this scenario, the swing returning to its original position every 2 seconds indicates a consistent period, aligning with this SHM characteristic. However, for a complete classification as SHM, the restoring force acting on the swing must also be directly proportional to its displacement from the equilibrium position and in the opposite direction.

Given the equation a = -ω^2 x for SHM, explain the implications when the displacement, x, is at its maximum and minimum values.

When the displacement, x, is at its maximum value in SHM, the acceleration, a, will also reach its maximum magnitude but in the opposite direction. This is because the acceleration is directly proportional to the displacement but is always directed towards the equilibrium position, as indicated by the negative sign in the equation a = -ω2 x. On the other hand, when the displacement, x, is at its minimum value (i.e., at the equilibrium position), the acceleration, a, will be zero. This signifies that at the equilibrium position, there's no net force acting on the object and hence, no acceleration.

Dr Shubhi Khandelwal avatar
Written by: Dr Shubhi Khandelwal
Qualified Dentist and Expert Science Educator

Shubhi is a seasoned educational specialist with a sharp focus on IB, A-level, GCSE, AP, and MCAT sciences. With 6+ years of expertise, she excels in advanced curriculum guidance and creating precise educational resources, ensuring expert instruction and deep student comprehension of complex science concepts.

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