Last updated
Common symbols
f, ν
SI unit Hz
In SI base units s −1

Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time. [1] It is also referred to as temporal frequency, which emphasizes the contrast to spatial frequency and angular frequency. Frequency is measured in units of hertz (Hz) which is equal to one occurrence of a repeating event per second. The period is the duration of time of one cycle in a repeating event, so the period is the reciprocal of the frequency. [2] For example: if a newborn baby's heart beats at a frequency of 120 times a minute (2 hertz), its period, T, — the time interval between beats—is half a second (60 seconds divided by 120 beats). Frequency is an important parameter used in science and engineering to specify the rate of oscillatory and vibratory phenomena, such as mechanical vibrations, audio signals (sound), radio waves, and light.



These three dots are flashing, or cycling, periodically--from lowest frequency (0.5 hertz) to highest frequency (2.0 hertz), top to bottom. For each flashing dot: "f" is the frequency in hertz, (Hz)--or the number of events per second (cycles per second)--that the dot flashes; while "T" is the period, or time, in seconds (s) of each cycle, (the number of seconds per cycle). Note T and f are reciprocal values to each other. FrequencyAnimation.gif
These three dots are flashing, or cycling, periodically—from lowest frequency (0.5 hertz) to highest frequency (2.0 hertz), top to bottom. For each flashing dot: "f" is the frequency in hertz, (Hz)—or the number of events per second (cycles per second)—that the dot flashes; while "T" is the period, or time, in seconds (s) of each cycle, (the number of seconds per cycle). Note T and f are reciprocal values to each other.
As time elapses--here moving left to right on the horizontal axis--the five sinusoidal waves vary, or cycle, regularly at different rates. The red wave (top) has the lowest frequency (cycles at the slowest rate) while the purple wave (bottom) has the highest frequency (cycles at the fastest rate). Sine waves different frequencies.svg
As time elapses—here moving left to right on the horizontal axis—the five sinusoidal waves vary, or cycle, regularly at different rates. The red wave (top) has the lowest frequency (cycles at the slowest rate) while the purple wave (bottom) has the highest frequency (cycles at the fastest rate).

For cyclical processes, such as rotation, oscillations, or waves, frequency is defined as a number of cycles per unit time. In physics and engineering disciplines, such as optics, acoustics, and radio, frequency is usually denoted by a Latin letter f or by the Greek letter or ν (nu) (see e.g. Planck's formula).

The relation between the frequency and the period, , of a repeating event or oscillation is given by


The SI derived unit of frequency is the hertz (Hz), named after the German physicist Heinrich Hertz. One hertz means that an event repeats once per second. If a TV has a refresh rate of 1 hertz the TV screen will change (or refresh) its picture once per second. A previous name for this unit was cycles per second (cps). The SI unit for the period is the second.

A traditional unit of measure used with rotating mechanical devices is revolutions per minute, abbreviated r/min or rpm. 60 rpm equals one hertz. [3]

Period versus frequency

As a matter of convenience, longer and slower waves, such as ocean surface waves, tend to be described by wave period rather than frequency. Short and fast waves, like audio and radio, are usually described by their frequency instead of period. These commonly used conversions are listed below:

Frequency1 mHz (10−3 Hz)1 Hz (100 Hz)1 kHz (103 Hz)1 MHz (106 Hz)1 GHz (109 Hz)1 THz (1012 Hz)
Period1 ks (103 s)1 s (100 s)1 ms (10−3 s)1 µs (10−6 s)1 ns (10−9 s)1 ps (10−12 s)
Diagram of the relationship between the different types of frequency and other wave properties. Commutative diagram of harmonic wave properties.svg
Diagram of the relationship between the different types of frequency and other wave properties.
Angular frequency is commonly measured in radians per second (rad/s) but, for discrete-time signals, can also be expressed as radians per sampling interval, which is a dimensionless quantity. Angular frequency (in radians) is larger than regular frequency (in Hz) by a factor of 2π.
Wavenumber, k, is the spatial frequency analogue of angular temporal frequency and is measured in radians per meter. In the case of more than one spatial dimension, wavenumber is a vector quantity.

In wave propagation

For periodic waves in nondispersive media (that is, media in which the wave speed is independent of frequency), frequency has an inverse relationship to the wavelength, λ (lambda). Even in dispersive media, the frequency f of a sinusoidal wave is equal to the phase velocity v of the wave divided by the wavelength λ of the wave:

In the special case of electromagnetic waves moving through a vacuum, then v = c, where c is the speed of light in a vacuum, and this expression becomes:

When waves from a monochrome source travel from one medium to another, their frequency remains the same—only their wavelength and speed change.


Measurement of frequency can be done in the following ways,


Calculating the frequency of a repeating event is accomplished by counting the number of times that event occurs within a specific time period, then dividing the count by the length of the time period. For example, if 71 events occur within 15 seconds the frequency is:

If the number of counts is not very large, it is more accurate to measure the time interval for a predetermined number of occurrences, rather than the number of occurrences within a specified time. [4] The latter method introduces a random error into the count of between zero and one count, so on average half a count. This is called gating error and causes an average error in the calculated frequency of , or a fractional error of where is the timing interval and is the measured frequency. This error decreases with frequency, so it is generally a problem at low frequencies where the number of counts N is small.

Resonant reed frequency meter.jpg
A resonant-reed frequency meter, an obsolete device used from about 1900 to the 1940s for measuring the frequency of alternating current. It consists of a strip of metal with reeds of graduated lengths, vibrated by an electromagnet. When the unknown frequency is applied to the electromagnet, the reed which is resonant at that frequency will vibrate with large amplitude, visible next to the scale.


An older method of measuring the frequency of rotating or vibrating objects is to use a stroboscope. This is an intense repetitively flashing light (strobe light) whose frequency can be adjusted with a calibrated timing circuit. The strobe light is pointed at the rotating object and the frequency adjusted up and down. When the frequency of the strobe equals the frequency of the rotating or vibrating object, the object completes one cycle of oscillation and returns to its original position between the flashes of light, so when illuminated by the strobe the object appears stationary. Then the frequency can be read from the calibrated readout on the stroboscope. A downside of this method is that an object rotating at an integral multiple of the strobing frequency will also appear stationary.

Frequency counter

Modern frequency counter Frequency counter.jpg
Modern frequency counter

Higher frequencies are usually measured with a frequency counter. This is an electronic instrument which measures the frequency of an applied repetitive electronic signal and displays the result in hertz on a digital display. It uses digital logic to count the number of cycles during a time interval established by a precision quartz time base. Cyclic processes that are not electrical, such as the rotation rate of a shaft, mechanical vibrations, or sound waves, can be converted to a repetitive electronic signal by transducers and the signal applied to a frequency counter. As of 2018, frequency counters can cover the range up to about 100  GHz. This represents the limit of direct counting methods; frequencies above this must be measured by indirect methods.

Heterodyne methods

Above the range of frequency counters, frequencies of electromagnetic signals are often measured indirectly utilizing heterodyning (frequency conversion). A reference signal of a known frequency near the unknown frequency is mixed with the unknown frequency in a nonlinear mixing device such as a diode. This creates a heterodyne or "beat" signal at the difference between the two frequencies. If the two signals are close together in frequency the heterodyne is low enough to be measured by a frequency counter. This process only measures the difference between the unknown frequency and the reference frequency. To reach higher frequencies, several stages of heterodyning can be used. Current research is extending this method to infrared and light frequencies (optical heterodyne detection).



Complete spectrum of electromagnetic radiation with the visible portion highlighted EM spectrum.svg
Complete spectrum of electromagnetic radiation with the visible portion highlighted

Visible light is an electromagnetic wave, consisting of oscillating electric and magnetic fields traveling through space. The frequency of the wave determines its color: 4×1014  Hz is red light, 8×1014 Hz is violet light, and between these (in the range 4-8×1014 Hz) are all the other colors of the visible spectrum. An electromagnetic wave can have a frequency less than 4×1014 Hz, but it will be invisible to the human eye; such waves are called infrared (IR) radiation. At even lower frequency, the wave is called a microwave, and at still lower frequencies it is called a radio wave. Likewise, an electromagnetic wave can have a frequency higher than 8×1014 Hz, but it will be invisible to the human eye; such waves are called ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Even higher-frequency waves are called X-rays, and higher still are gamma rays.

All of these waves, from the lowest-frequency radio waves to the highest-frequency gamma rays, are fundamentally the same, and they are all called electromagnetic radiation. They all travel through a vacuum at the same speed (the speed of light), giving them wavelengths inversely proportional to their frequencies.

where c is the speed of light ( c in a vacuum or less in other media), f is the frequency and λ is the wavelength.

In dispersive media, such as glass, the speed depends somewhat on frequency, so the wavelength is not quite inversely proportional to frequency.


The sound wave spectrum, with rough guide of some applications Ultrasound range diagram.svg
The sound wave spectrum, with rough guide of some applications

Sound propagates as mechanical vibration waves of pressure and displacement, in air or other substances. [5] . In general, frequency components of a sound determine its "color", its timbre. When speaking about the frequency (in singular) of a sound, it means the property that most determines pitch. [6]

The frequencies an ear can hear are limited to a specific range of frequencies. The audible frequency range for humans is typically given as being between about 20  Hz and 20,000 Hz (20 kHz), though the high frequency limit usually reduces with age. Other species have different hearing ranges. For example, some dog breeds can perceive vibrations up to 60,000 Hz. [7]

In many media, such as air, the speed of sound is approximately independent of frequency, so the wavelength of the sound waves (distance between repetitions) is approximately inversely proportional to frequency.

Line current

In Europe, Africa, Australia, Southern South America, most of Asia, and Russia, the frequency of the alternating current in household electrical outlets is 50 Hz (close to the tone G), whereas in North America and Northern South America, the frequency of the alternating current in household electrical outlets is 60 Hz (between the tones B♭ and B; that is, a minor third above the European frequency). The frequency of the 'hum' in an audio recording can show where the recording was made, in countries using a European, or an American, grid frequency.

See also

Related Research Articles

In physics, the cross section is a measure of probability that a specific process will take place in a collision of two particles. For example, the Rutherford cross-section is a measure of probability that an alpha-particle will be deflected by a given angle during a collision with an atomic nucleus. Cross section is typically denoted σ (sigma) and is expressed in terms of the transverse area that the incident particle must hit in order for the given process to occur.

Fundamental frequency Lowest frequency of a periodic waveform, such as sound

The natural frequency, or fundamental frequency, often referred to simply as the fundamental, is defined as the lowest frequency of a periodic waveform. In music, the fundamental is the musical pitch of a note that is perceived as the lowest partial present. In terms of a superposition of sinusoids, the fundamental frequency is the lowest frequency sinusoidal in the sum. In some contexts, the fundamental is usually abbreviated as f0, indicating the lowest frequency counting from zero. In other contexts, it is more common to abbreviate it as f1, the first harmonic.

Hertz SI unit for frequency

The hertz (symbol: Hz) is the derived unit of frequency in the International System of Units (SI) and is defined as one cycle per second. It is named after Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, the first person to provide conclusive proof of the existence of electromagnetic waves. Hertz are commonly expressed in multiples: kilohertz (103 Hz, kHz), megahertz (106 Hz, MHz), gigahertz (109 Hz, GHz), terahertz (1012 Hz, THz), petahertz (1015 Hz, PHz), exahertz (1018 Hz, EHz), and zettahertz (1021 Hz, ZHz).

Wave interference Phenomenon

In physics, interference is a phenomenon in which two waves superpose to form a resultant wave of greater, lower, or the same amplitude. Constructive and destructive interference result from the interaction of waves that are correlated or coherent with each other, either because they come from the same source or because they have the same or nearly the same frequency. Interference effects can be observed with all types of waves, for example, light, radio, acoustic, surface water waves, gravity waves, or matter waves. The resulting images or graphs are called interferograms.

Refractive index Ratio of the speed of light in vacuum to that in the medium

In optics, the refractive index of a material is a dimensionless number that describes how fast light travels through the material. It is defined as

Wavelength Spatial period of the wave—the distance over which the waves shape repeats, and thus the inverse of the spatial frequency

In physics, the wavelength is the spatial period of a periodic wave—the distance over which the wave's shape repeats. It is the distance between consecutive corresponding points of the same phase on the wave, such as two adjacent crests, troughs, or zero crossings, and is a characteristic of both traveling waves and standing waves, as well as other spatial wave patterns. The inverse of the wavelength is called the spatial frequency. Wavelength is commonly designated by the Greek letter lambda (λ). The term wavelength is also sometimes applied to modulated waves, and to the sinusoidal envelopes of modulated waves or waves formed by interference of several sinusoids.

Wave Repeated oscillation about a stable equilibrium

In physics, mathematics, and related fields, a wave is a propagating dynamic disturbance of one or more quantities, sometimes as described by a wave equation. In physical waves, at least two field quantities in the wave medium are involved. Waves can be periodic, in which case those quantities oscillate repeatedly about an equilibrium (resting) value at some frequency. When the entire waveform moves in one direction it is said to be a traveling wave; by contrast, a pair of superimposed periodic waves traveling in opposite directions makes a standing wave. In a standing wave, the amplitude of vibration has nulls at some positions where the wave amplitude appears smaller or even zero.

The propagation constant of a sinusoidal electromagnetic wave is a measure of the change undergone by the amplitude and phase of the wave as it propagates in a given direction. The quantity being measured can be the voltage, the current in a circuit, or a field vector such as electric field strength or flux density. The propagation constant itself measures the change per unit length, but it is otherwise dimensionless. In the context of two-port networks and their cascades, propagation constant measures the change undergone by the source quantity as it propagates from one port to the next.

Snells law The relation between the angles of incidence and refraction of waves crossing the interface between isotropic media

Snell's law is a formula used to describe the relationship between the angles of incidence and refraction, when referring to light or other waves passing through a boundary between two different isotropic media, such as water, glass, or air.

Wavenumber inverse of the wavelength

In the physical sciences, the wavenumber is the spatial frequency of a wave, measured in cycles per unit distance or radians per unit distance. Whereas temporal frequency can be thought of as the number of waves per unit time, wavenumber is the number of waves per unit distance.

Dispersion (optics) Dependence of phase velocity on frequency

In optics, dispersion is the phenomenon in which the phase velocity of a wave depends on its frequency. Media having this common property may be termed dispersive media. Sometimes the term chromatic dispersion is used for specificity. Although the term is used in the field of optics to describe light and other electromagnetic waves, dispersion in the same sense can apply to any sort of wave motion such as acoustic dispersion in the case of sound and seismic waves, in gravity waves, and for telecommunication signals along transmission lines or optical fiber.

Angular resolution describes the ability of any image-forming device such as an optical or radio telescope, a microscope, a camera, or an eye, to distinguish small details of an object, thereby making it a major determinant of image resolution. It is used in optics applied to light waves, in antenna theory applied to radio waves, and in acoustics applied to sound waves. The closely related term spatial resolution refers to the precision of a measurement with respect to space, which is directly connected to angular resolution in imaging instruments. The Rayleigh criterion shows that the minimum angular spread that can be resolved by an image forming system is limited by diffraction to the ratio of the wavelength of the waves to the aperture width. For this reason, high resolution imaging systems such as astronomical telescopes, long distance telephoto camera lenses and radio telescopes have large apertures.

In radiometry, irradiance is the radiant flux (power) received by a surface per unit area. The SI unit of irradiance is the watt per square metre (W⋅m−2). The CGS unit erg per square centimetre per second (erg⋅cm−2⋅s−1) is often used in astronomy. Irradiance is often called intensity, but this term is avoided in radiometry where such usage leads to confusion with radiant intensity. In astrophysics, irradiance is called radiant flux.

String vibration

A vibration in a string is a wave. Resonance causes a vibrating string to produce a sound with constant frequency, i.e. constant pitch. If the length or tension of the string is correctly adjusted, the sound produced is a musical tone. Vibrating strings are the basis of string instruments such as guitars, cellos, and pianos.

Phasor Complex number that represents a sinusoidal function

In physics and engineering, a phasor, is a complex number representing a sinusoidal function whose amplitude (A), angular frequency (ω), and initial phase (θ) are time-invariant. It is related to a more general concept called analytic representation, which decomposes a sinusoid into the product of a complex constant and a factor that encapsulates the frequency and time dependence. The complex constant, which encapsulates amplitude and phase dependence, is known as phasor, complex amplitude, and sinor or even complexor.

In fluid dynamics, dispersion of water waves generally refers to frequency dispersion, which means that waves of different wavelengths travel at different phase speeds. Water waves, in this context, are waves propagating on the water surface, with gravity and surface tension as the restoring forces. As a result, water with a free surface is generally considered to be a dispersive medium.

Acousto-optic modulator uses the acousto-optic effect to diffract and shift the frequency of light using sound waves

An acousto-optic modulator (AOM), also called a Bragg cell or an acousto-optic deflector (AOD), uses the acousto-optic effect to diffract and shift the frequency of light using sound waves. They are used in lasers for Q-switching, telecommunications for signal modulation, and in spectroscopy for frequency control. A piezoelectric transducer is attached to a material such as glass. An oscillating electric signal drives the transducer to vibrate, which creates sound waves in the material. These can be thought of as moving periodic planes of expansion and compression that change the index of refraction. Incoming light scatters off the resulting periodic index modulation and interference occurs similar to Bragg diffraction. The interaction can be thought of as a three-wave mixing process resulting in Sum-frequency generation or Difference-frequency generation between phonons and photons.

Optical resolution describes the ability of an imaging system to resolve detail in the object that is being imaged.

Planck constant physical constant representing the quantum of action

The Planck constant, or Planck's constant, is the quantum of electromagnetic action that relates a photon's energy to its frequency. The Planck constant multiplied by a photon's frequency is equal to a photon's energy. The Planck constant is a fundamental physical constant denoted as , and of fundamental importance in quantum mechanics. In metrology it is used to define the kilogram in SI units.

Photon energy is the energy carried by a single photon. The amount of energy is directly proportional to the photon's electromagnetic frequency and thus, equivalently, is inversely proportional to the wavelength. The higher the photon's frequency, the higher its energy. Equivalently, the longer the photon's wavelength, the lower its energy.


  1. "Definition of FREQUENCY" . Retrieved 3 October 2016.
  2. "Definition of PERIOD" . Retrieved 3 October 2016.
  3. Davies, A. (1997). Handbook of Condition Monitoring: Techniques and Methodology. New York: Springer. ISBN   978-0-412-61320-3.
  4. Bakshi, K.A.; A.V. Bakshi; U.A. Bakshi (2008). Electronic Measurement Systems. US: Technical Publications. pp. 4–14. ISBN   978-81-8431-206-5.
  5. "Definition of SOUND" . Retrieved 3 October 2016.
  6. Pilhofer, Michael (2007). Music Theory for Dummies. For Dummies. p. 97. ISBN   9780470167946.
  7. Elert, Glenn; Timothy Condon (2003). "Frequency Range of Dog Hearing". The Physics Factbook. Retrieved 2008-10-22.

Further reading