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Sound pressure

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Sound pressure

Sound measurements
 Sound pressure  p, SPL
 Particle velocity  v, SVL
 Particle displacement  δ
 Sound intensity  I, SIL
 Sound power  P, SWL
 Sound energy  W
 Sound energy density  w
 Sound exposure  E, SEL
 Acoustic impedance  Z
 Speed of sound  c
 Audio frequency  AF
 Transmission loss  TL

Sound pressure or acoustic pressure is the local pressure deviation from the ambient (average, or equilibrium) atmospheric pressure, caused by a sound wave. In air, sound pressure can be measured using a microphone, and in water with a hydrophone. The SI unit of sound pressure is the pascal (Pa).[1]


  • Mathematical definition 1
  • Sound measurements 2
  • Inverse-proportional law 3
  • Sound pressure level 4
    • Examples 4.1
    • Distance 4.2
    • Multiple sources 4.3
  • Examples of sound pressure 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Mathematical definition

Sound pressure diagram:
1. silence;
2. audible sound;
3. atmospheric pressure;
4. sound pressure

A sound wave in a transmission medium causes a deviation (sound pressure, a dynamic pressure) in the local ambient pressure, a static pressure.
Sound pressure, denoted p, is defined by

p_\mathrm{total} = p_\mathrm{stat} + p,


  • ptotal is the total pressure;
  • pstat is the static pressure.

Sound measurements

Sound intensity

In a sound wave, the complementary variable to sound pressure is the particle velocity. Together they determine the sound intensity of the wave.
Sound intensity, denoted I and measured in W·m−2 in SI units, is defined by

\mathbf I = p \mathbf v,


  • p is the sound pressure;
  • v is the particle velocity.

Acoustic impedance

Acoustic impedance, denoted Z and measured in Pa·m−3·s in SI units, is defined by[2]

Z(s) = \frac{\hat{p}(s)}{\hat{Q}(s)},


  • \hat{p}(s) is the Laplace transform of sound pressure;
  • \hat{Q}(s) is the Laplace transform of sound volume flow rate.

Specific acoustic impedance, denoted z and measured in Pa·m−1·s in SI units, is defined by[2]

z(s) = \frac{\hat{p}(s)}{\hat{v}(s)},


  • \hat{p}(s) is the Laplace transform of sound pressure;
  • \hat{v}(s) is the Laplace transform of particle velocity.

Particle displacement

The particle displacement of a progressive sine wave is given by

\delta(\mathbf{r},\, t) = \delta_\mathrm{m} \cos(\mathbf{k} \cdot \mathbf{r} - \omega t + \varphi_{\delta, 0}),


It follows that the particle velocity and the sound pressure along the direction of propagation of the sound wave x are given by

v(\mathbf{r},\, t) = \frac{\partial \delta}{\partial t} (\mathbf{r},\, t) = \omega \delta_\mathrm{m} \cos\!\left(\mathbf{k} \cdot \mathbf{r} - \omega t + \varphi_{\delta, 0} + \frac{\pi}{2}\right) = v_\mathrm{m} \cos(\mathbf{k} \cdot \mathbf{r} - \omega t + \varphi_{v, 0}),
p(\mathbf{r},\, t) = -\rho c^2 \frac{\partial \delta}{\partial x} (\mathbf{r},\, t) = \rho c^2 k_x \delta_\mathrm{m} \cos\!\left(\mathbf{k} \cdot \mathbf{r} - \omega t + \varphi_{\delta, 0} + \frac{\pi}{2}\right) = p_\mathrm{m} \cos(\mathbf{k} \cdot \mathbf{r} - \omega t + \varphi_{p, 0}),


  • vm is the amplitude of the particle velocity;
  • \varphi_{v, 0} is the phase shift of the particle velocity;
  • pm is the amplitude of the acoustic pressure;
  • \varphi_{p, 0} is the phase shift of the acoustic pressure.

Taking the Laplace transforms of v and p with respect to time yields

\hat{v}(\mathbf{r},\, s) = v_\mathrm{m} \frac{s \cos \varphi_{v,0} - \omega \sin \varphi_{v,0}}{s^2 + \omega^2},
\hat{p}(\mathbf{r},\, s) = p_\mathrm{m} \frac{s \cos \varphi_{p,0} - \omega \sin \varphi_{p,0}}{s^2 + \omega^2}.

Since \varphi_{v,0} = \varphi_{p,0}, the amplitude of the specific acoustic impedance is given by

z_\mathrm{m}(\mathbf{r},\, s) = |z(\mathbf{r},\, s)| = \left|\frac{\hat{p}(\mathbf{r},\, s)}{\hat{v}(\mathbf{r},\, s)}\right| = \frac{p_\mathrm{m}}{v_\mathrm{m}} = \frac{\rho c^2 k_x}{\omega}.

Consequently, the amplitude of the particle displacement is related to that of the acoustic velocity and the sound pressure by

\delta_\mathrm{m} = \frac{v_\mathrm{m}}{\omega},
\delta_\mathrm{m} = \frac{p_\mathrm{m}}{\omega z_\mathrm{m}(\mathbf{r},\, s)}.

Inverse-proportional law

When measuring the sound pressure created by an object, it is important to measure the distance from the object as well, since the sound pressure of a spherical sound wave decreases as 1/r from the centre of the sphere (and not as 1/r2, like the sound intensity):[3]

p(r) \propto \frac{1}{r}.

This relationship is an inverse-proportional law.

If the sound pressure p1 is measured at a distance r1 from the centre of the sphere, the sound pressure p2 at another position r2 can be calculated:

p_2 = \frac{r_1}{r_2}\,p_1.

The inverse-proportional law for sound pressure comes from the inverse-square law for sound intensity:

I(r) \propto \frac{1}{r^2}.


I(r) = p(r)v(r) = p(r)[p * z^{-1}](r) \propto p^2(r),


hence the inverse-proportional law:

p(r) \propto \frac{1}{r}.

The sound pressure may vary in direction from the centre of the sphere as well, so measurements at different angles may be necessary, depending on the situation. An obvious example of a sound source whose spherical sound wave varies in level in different directions is a bullhorn.

Sound pressure level

Sound pressure level (SPL) or acoustic pressure level is a logarithmic measure of the effective pressure of a sound relative to a reference value.
Sound pressure level, denoted Lp and measured in dB, is defined by[4]

L_p = \ln\!\left(\frac{p}{p_0}\right)\!~\mathrm{Np} = 2 \log_{10}\!\left(\frac{p}{p_0}\right)\!~\mathrm{B} = 20 \log_{10}\!\left(\frac{p}{p_0}\right)\!~\mathrm{dB},


  • p is the root mean square sound pressure;[5]
  • p0 is the reference sound pressure;
  • 1 Np = 1 is the neper;
  • 1 B = (1/2) ln(10) is the bel;
  • 1 dB = (1/20) ln(10) is the decibel.

The commonly used reference sound pressure in air is[6]

p_0 = 20~\mathrm{\mu Pa},

which is often considered as the threshold of human hearing (roughly the sound of a mosquito flying 3 m away). The proper notations for sound pressure level using this reference are Lp/(20 μPa) or Lp (re 20 μPa), but the suffix notations dB SPL, dB(SPL), dBSPL, or dBSPL are very common, even if they are not accepted by the SI.[7]

Most sound level measurements will be made relative to this reference, meaning 1 Pa will equal an SPL of 94 dB. In other media, such as underwater, a reference level of 1 μPa is used.[8] These references are defined in ANSI S1.1-1994.[9]


The lower limit of audibility is defined as SPL of 0 dB, but the upper limit is not as clearly defined. While 1 atm (194 dB Peak or 191 dB SPL) is the largest pressure variation an undistorted sound wave can have in Earth's atmosphere, larger sound waves can be present in other atmospheres or other media such as under water, or through the Earth.

Ears detect changes in sound pressure. Human hearing does not have a flat spectral sensitivity (frequency response) relative to frequency versus amplitude. Humans do not perceive low- and high-frequency sounds as well as they perceive sounds near 2,000 Hz, as shown in the equal-loudness contour. Because the frequency response of human hearing changes with amplitude, three weightings have been established for measuring sound pressure: A, B and C. A-weighting applies to sound pressures levels up to 55 dB, B-weighting applies to sound pressures levels between 55 dB and 85 dB, and C-weighting is for measuring sound pressure levels above 85 dB.

In order to distinguish the different sound measures a suffix is used: A-weighted sound pressure level is written either as dBA or LA. B-weighted sound pressure level is written either as dBB or LB, and C-weighted sound pressure level is written either as dBC or LC. Unweighted sound pressure level is called "linear sound pressure level" and is often written as dBL or just L. Some sound measuring instruments use the letter "Z" as an indication of linear SPL.


The distance of the measuring microphone from a sound source is often omitted when SPL measurements are quoted, making the data useless. In the case of ambient environmental measurements of "background" noise, distance need not be quoted as no single source is present, but when measuring the noise level of a specific piece of equipment the distance should always be stated. A distance of one metre (1 m) from the source is a frequently used standard distance. Because of the effects of reflected noise within a closed room, the use of an anechoic chamber allows for sound to be comparable to measurements made in a free field environment.

According to the inverse proportional law, when sound level Lp1 is measured at a distance r1, the sound level Lp2 at the distance r2 is

L_{p_2} = L_{p_1} + 20 \log_{10}\!\left( \frac{r_1}{r_2} \right)\!~\mathrm{dB}.

Multiple sources

The formula for the sum of the sound pressure levels of n incoherent radiating sources is

L_\Sigma = 10 \log_{10}\!\left(\frac},\quad i = 1,\, 2,\, \ldots,\, n,

in the formula for the sum of the sound pressure levels yields

L_\Sigma = 10 \log_{10}\!\left(10^{\frac{L_1}{10\,\mathrm{dB}}} + 10^{\frac{L_2}{10\,\mathrm{dB}}} + \ldots + 10^{\frac{L_n}{10\,\mathrm{dB}}} \right)\!~\mathrm{dB}.

Examples of sound pressure

Examples of sound pressure in air at standard atmospheric pressure
Source of sound Sound pressure*
Sound pressure level
Shockwave (distorted sound waves > 1 atm; waveform valleys are clipped at zero pressure) >101,325 >194
Theoretical limit for undistorted sound at 1 atmosphere environmental pressure 101,325 194
Stun grenade 6,000–20,000 170–180
Simple open-ended thermoacoustic device[10] 12,619 176
.30-06 rifle being fired 1 m to shooter's side 7,265 171
Rocket launch equipment acoustic tests 4000 165
LRAD 1000Xi Long Range Acoustic Device at 1 m[11] 893 153
Jet engine at 1 m 632 150
Threshold of pain[12][13][14] 63-200 130-140
Loudest human voice at 1 inch[14] 110 135
Trumpet at 0.5 m[15] 63.2 130
Vuvuzela horn at 1 m[16] 20 120
Risk of instantaneous noise-induced hearing loss 20 120
Jet engine at 100 m 6.32–200 110–140
Non-electric chainsaw at 1 m[17] 6.32 110
Jack hammer at 1 m 2 100
Traffic on a busy roadway at 10 m 0.2–0.632 80–90
Hearing damage (over long-term exposure, need not be continuous)[18] 0.356 85
Passenger car at 10 m (2–20)×10−2 60–80
EPA-identified maximum to protect against hearing loss and other disruptive effects from noise, such as sleep disturbance, stress, learning detriment, etc.[19] 6.32×10−2 70
Handheld electric mixer 65
TV (set at home level) at 1 m 2×10−2 60
Washing machine, dishwasher[20] 42–53
Normal conversation at 1 m (2–20)×10−3 40–60
Very calm room (2–6.32)×10−4 20–30
Light leaf rustling, calm breathing 6.32×10−5 10
Auditory threshold at 1 kHz[18] 2×10−5 0

*All values listed are the effective sound pressure unless otherwise stated.

See also


  1. ^ "Sound Pressure is the force of sound on a surface area perpendicular to the direction of the sound". Retrieved 22 April 2015. 
  2. ^ a b Wolfe, J. "What is acoustic impedance and why is it important?". University of New South Wales, Dept. of Physics, Music Acoustics. Retrieved 1 January 2014. 
  3. ^ Longhurst, R.S. (1967). Geometrical and Physical Optics. Norwich: Longmans. 
  4. ^ "Letter symbols to be used in electrical technology – Part 3: Logarithmic and related quantities, and their units", IEC 60027-3 Ed. 3.0, International Electrotechnical Commission, 19 July 2002.
  5. ^ Bies, David A., and Hansen, Colin. (2003). Engineering Noise Control.
  6. ^ Ross Roeser, Michael Valente, Audiology: Diagnosis (Thieme 2007), p. 240.
  7. ^ Thompson, A. and Taylor, B. N. sec 8.7, "Logarithmic quantities and units: level, neper, bel", Guide for the Use of the International System of Units (SI) 2008 Edition, NIST Special Publication 811, 2nd printing (November 2008), SP811 PDF
  8. ^ Morfey, Christopher L. (2001). Dictionary of Acoustics. San Diego: Academic Press.  
  9. ^ "Noise Terms Glossary". Retrieved 2012-10-14. 
  10. ^ Hatazawa, M., Sugita, H., Ogawa, T. & Seo, Y. (Jan. 2004), ‘Performance of a thermoacoustic sound wave generator driven with waste heat of automobile gasoline engine,’ Transactions of the Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers (Part B) Vol. 16, No. 1, 292–299. [2]
  11. ^ "LRAD Corporation Product Overview for LRAD 1000Xi". Retrieved 29 May 2014. 
  12. ^ Nave, Carl R. (2006). "Threshold of Pain". HyperPhysics. SciLinks. Retrieved 2009-06-16. 
  13. ^ Franks, John R.; Stephenson, Mark R.; Merry, Carol J., eds. (June 1996). Preventing Occupational Hearing Loss - A Practical Guide (PDF).  
  14. ^ a b Realistic Maximum Sound Pressure Levels for Dynamic Microphones – Shure
  15. ^ Recording Brass & Reeds
  16. ^ Swanepoel, De Wet; Hall III, James W; Koekemoer, Dirk (February 2010). "Vuvuzela – good for your team, bad for your ears" (PDF). South African Medical Journal 100 (4): 99–100.  
  17. ^ "Decibel Table - SPL - Loudness Comparison Chart". "sengpielaudio". Retrieved 5 Mar 2012. 
  18. ^ a b William Hamby. "Ultimate Sound Pressure Level Decibel Table". Archived from the original on 2010-07-27. 
  19. ^ "EPA Identifies Noise Levels Affecting Health and Welfare" (Press release).  
  20. ^ "Active Water" (PDF). Bosch. p. 17. Retrieved 4 March 2012. 
  • Beranek, Leo L., Acoustics (1993), Acoustical Society of America, ISBN 0-88318-494-X.
  • Daniel R. Raichel, The Science and Applications of Acoustics (2006), Springer New York, ISBN 1441920803.

External links

  • Sound Pressure and Sound Power, Effect and Cause
  • Conversion of Sound Pressure to Sound Pressure Level and Vice Versa
  • Table of Sound Levels, Corresponding Sound Pressure and Sound Intensity
  • Ohm's Law as Acoustic Equivalent, Calculations
  • A Table of SPL Values
  • Relationships of Acoustic Quantities Associated with a Plane Progressive Acoustic Sound Wave
  • Sound Pressure and Sound Power, Two Commonly Confused Characteristics of Sound
  • How Many Decibels Is Twice as Loud? Sound Level Change and the Respective Factor of Sound Pressure or Sound Intensity
  • Decibel (Loudness) Comparison Chart
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