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A pendulum making 25 complete oscillations in 60 s, a frequency of 0.416  Hz
Common symbols
f, ν
SI unit hertz (Hz)
Other units
In SI base units s −1
Derivations from
other quantities
  • f = 1 / T

Frequency (symbol f) is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time. [1] It is also occasionally referred to as temporal frequency for clarity and to distinguish it from spatial frequency . Frequency is measured in hertz (symbol Hz) which is equal to the number of events per second. Ordinary frequency is related to angular frequency (symbol ω, in radians per second) by a scaling factor of 2π. The period (symbol T) is the interval of time between events, so the period is the reciprocal of the frequency, f=1/T. [2]


For example, if a heart beats at a frequency of 120 times a minute (2 hertz), the period—the interval at which the beats repeat—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.

Definitions and units

A pendulum with a period of 2.8 s and a frequency of 0.36 Hz Pendulum-no-text.gif
A pendulum with a period of 2.8 s and a frequency of 0.36  Hz

For cyclical phenomena such as oscillations, waves, or for examples of simple harmonic motion, the term frequency is defined as the number of cycles or repetitions per unit of time. The conventional symbol for frequency is f; the Greek letter ν (nu) is also used. [3] The periodT is the time taken to complete one cycle of an oscillation or rotation. The relation between the frequency and the period is given by the equation [4]

The term temporal frequency is used to emphasise that the frequency is characterised by the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit time.

The SI unit of frequency is the hertz (Hz), [4] named after the German physicist Heinrich Hertz by the International Electrotechnical Commission in 1930. It was adopted by the CGPM (Conférence générale des poids et mesures) in 1960, officially replacing the previous name, cycle per second (cps). The SI unit for the period, as for all measurements of time, is the second. [5] A traditional unit of frequency used with rotating mechanical devices, where it is termed rotational frequency , is revolution per minute, abbreviated r/min or rpm. [6] 60 rpm is equivalent to one hertz. [7]

Period versus frequency

As a matter of convenience, longer and slower waves, such as ocean surface waves, are more typically described by wave period rather than frequency. [8] Short and fast waves, like audio and radio, are usually described by their frequency. Some commonly used conversions are listed below:

1 mHz (10−3 Hz)1 ks (103 s)
1 Hz (100 Hz)1 s (100 s)
1 kHz (103 Hz)1 ms (10−3 s)
1 MHz (106 Hz)1 μs (10−6 s)
1 GHz (109 Hz)1 ns (10−9 s)
1 THz (1012 Hz)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
The unit of angular frequency is the radian 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 is frequency multiplied by 2π.

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 in vacuum, then v = c, where c is the speed of light in vacuum, and this expression becomes

When monochromatic waves 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 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. [10] 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 old 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 integer 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: 400 THz (4×1014 Hz) is red light, 800 THz (8×1014 Hz) is violet light, and between these (in the range 400–800 THz) are all the other colors of the visible spectrum. An electromagnetic wave with a frequency less than 4×1014 Hz 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 with a frequency higher than 8×1014 Hz will also 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 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 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. [11] 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 its pitch. [12]

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. [13]

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 a North American, grid frequency.

Aperiodic frequency

Aperiodic frequency is the rate of incidence or occurrence of non-cyclic phenomena, including random processes such as radioactive decay. It is expressed with the unit of reciprocal second (s−1) [14] or, in the case of radioactivity, becquerels. [15]

It is defined as a rate, f = Nt, involving the number of entities counted or the number of events happened (N) during a given time durationt);[ citation needed ] it is a physical quantity of type temporal rate.

See also


  1. The term spatial period, sometimes used in place of wavelength , analogously corresponds to the (temporal) period. [9]

Related Research Articles

In physics, the cross section is a measure of the probability that a specific process will take place when some kind of radiant excitation intersects a localized phenomenon. For example, the Rutherford cross-section is a measure of probability that an alpha particle will be deflected by a given angle during an interaction with an atomic nucleus. Cross section is typically denoted σ (sigma) and is expressed in units of area, more specifically in barns. In a way, it can be thought of as the size of the object that the excitation must hit in order for the process to occur, but more exactly, it is a parameter of a stochastic process.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Refractive index</span> Ratio of the speed of light in vacuum to that in the medium

In optics, the refractive index of an optical medium is a dimensionless number that gives the indication of the light bending ability of that medium.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wavelength</span> Distance over which a waves shape repeats

In physics and mathematics, wavelength or spatial period of a wave or periodic function is the distance over which the wave's shape repeats. In other words, it is the distance between consecutive corresponding points of the same phase on the wave, such as two adjacent crests, troughs, or zero crossings. Wavelength 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Circular polarization</span> Polarization state

In electrodynamics, circular polarization of an electromagnetic wave is a polarization state in which, at each point, the electromagnetic field of the wave has a constant magnitude and is rotating at a constant rate in a plane perpendicular to the direction of the wave.

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Snell's law</span> Formula for refraction angles

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. In optics, the law is used in ray tracing to compute the angles of incidence or refraction, and in experimental optics to find the refractive index of a material. The law is also satisfied in meta-materials, which allow light to be bent "backward" at a negative angle of refraction with a negative refractive index.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wavenumber</span> Spatial frequency of a wave

In the physical sciences, the wavenumber, also known as repetency, is the spatial frequency of a wave, measured in cycles per unit distance or radians per unit distance. It is analogous to temporal frequency, which is defined as the number of wave cycles per unit time or radians per unit time.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dispersion (optics)</span> Dependence of phase velocity on frequency

In optics and in wave propagation in general, dispersion is the phenomenon in which the phase velocity of a wave depends on its frequency; sometimes the term chromatic dispersion is used for specificity to optics in particular. A medium having this common property may be termed a dispersive medium.

Fourier optics is the study of classical optics using Fourier transforms (FTs), in which the waveform being considered is regarded as made up of a combination, or superposition, of plane waves. It has some parallels to the Huygens–Fresnel principle, in which the wavefront is regarded as being made up of a combination of spherical wavefronts whose sum is the wavefront being studied. A key difference is that Fourier optics considers the plane waves to be natural modes of the propagation medium, as opposed to Huygens–Fresnel, where the spherical waves originate in the physical medium.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dipole antenna</span> Antenna consisting of two rod shaped conductors

In radio and telecommunications a dipole antenna or doublet is the simplest and most widely used class of antenna. The dipole is any one of a class of antennas producing a radiation pattern approximating that of an elementary electric dipole with a radiating structure supporting a line current so energized that the current has only one node at each end. A dipole antenna commonly consists of two identical conductive elements such as metal wires or rods. The driving current from the transmitter is applied, or for receiving antennas the output signal to the receiver is taken, between the two halves of the antenna. Each side of the feedline to the transmitter or receiver is connected to one of the conductors. This contrasts with a monopole antenna, which consists of a single rod or conductor with one side of the feedline connected to it, and the other side connected to some type of ground. A common example of a dipole is the "rabbit ears" television antenna found on broadcast television sets.

In physics, a wave vector is a vector used in describing a wave, with a typical unit being cycle per metre. It has a magnitude and direction. Its magnitude is the wavenumber of the wave, and its direction is perpendicular to the wavefront. In isotropic media, this is also the direction of wave propagation.

In radiometry, radiant intensity is the radiant flux emitted, reflected, transmitted or received, per unit solid angle, and spectral intensity is the radiant intensity per unit frequency or wavelength, depending on whether the spectrum is taken as a function of frequency or of wavelength. These are directional quantities. The SI unit of radiant intensity is the watt per steradian, while that of spectral intensity in frequency is the watt per steradian per hertz and that of spectral intensity in wavelength is the watt per steradian per metre —commonly the watt per steradian per nanometre. Radiant intensity is distinct from irradiance and radiant exitance, which are often called intensity in branches of physics other than radiometry. In radio-frequency engineering, radiant intensity is sometimes called radiation intensity.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Phasor</span> Complex number representing a particular sine wave

In physics and engineering, a phasor is a complex number representing a sinusoidal function whose amplitude, angular frequency, and initial phase 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 depending on time and frequency. The complex constant, which depends on amplitude and phase, is known as a phasor, or 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Acousto-optic modulator</span>

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. An imaging system may have many individual components, including one or more lenses, and/or recording and display components. Each of these contributes to the optical resolution of the system; the environment in which the imaging is done often is a further important factor.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Isotropic radiator</span>

An isotropic radiator is a theoretical point source of electromagnetic or sound waves which radiates the same intensity of radiation in all directions. It has no preferred direction of radiation. It radiates uniformly in all directions over a sphere centred on the source. Isotropic radiators are used as reference radiators with which other sources are compared, for example in determining the gain of antennas. A coherent isotropic radiator of electromagnetic waves is theoretically impossible, but incoherent radiators can be built. An isotropic sound radiator is possible because sound is a longitudinal wave.

Sinusoidal plane-wave solutions are particular solutions to the electromagnetic wave equation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Contrast transfer function</span>

The contrast transfer function (CTF) mathematically describes how aberrations in a transmission electron microscope (TEM) modify the image of a sample. This contrast transfer function (CTF) sets the resolution of high-resolution transmission electron microscopy (HRTEM), also known as phase contrast TEM.

In optics, the Fraunhofer diffraction equation is used to model the diffraction of waves when the diffraction pattern is viewed at a long distance from the diffracting object, and also when it is viewed at the focal plane of an imaging lens.


  1. "Definition of FREQUENCY" . Retrieved 3 October 2016.
  2. "Definition of PERIOD" . Retrieved 3 October 2016.
  3. Serway & Faughn 1989, p. 346.
  4. 1 2 Serway & Faughn 1989, p. 354.
  5. "Resolution 12 of the 11th CGPM (1960)". BIPM (International Bureau of Weights and Measures). Archived from the original on 8 April 2020. Retrieved 21 January 2021.
  6. "Special Publication 811: NIST Guide to the SI, Chapter 8". NIST. 28 January 2016. Retrieved 2022-11-08.
  7. Davies 1997, p. 275.
  8. Young 1999, p. 7.
  9. Boreman, Glenn D. "Spatial Frequency". SPIE . Retrieved 22 January 2021.
  10. 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.[ permanent dead link ]
  11. "Definition of SOUND" . Retrieved 3 October 2016.
  12. Pilhofer, Michael (2007). Music Theory for Dummies. For Dummies. p. 97. ISBN   978-0-470-16794-6.
  13. Condon, Tim (2003). Elert, Glenn (ed.). "Frequency range of dog hearing". The Physics Factbook. Retrieved 2008-10-22.
  14. Lombardi, Michael A. (2007). "Fundamentals of Time and Frequency". In Bishop, Robert H. (ed.). Mechatronic Systems, Sensors, and Actuators: Fundamentals and Modeling. Austin: CRC Press. ISBN   9781420009002.
  15. Newell, David B; Tiesinga, Eite (2019). The international system of units (SI) (PDF) (Report). Gaithersburg, MD: National Institute of Standards and Technology. doi:10.6028/nist.sp.330-2019. sub§2.3.4, Table 4.


Further reading