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Why Sinusoids are Important

Sinusoids arise naturally in a variety of ways:

One reason for the importance of sinusoids is that they are fundamental in physics. Many physical systems that resonate or oscillate produce quasi-sinusoidal motion. See simple harmonic motion in any freshman physics text for an introduction to this topic. The canonical example is the mass-spring oscillator.4.1

Another reason sinusoids are important is that they are eigenfunctions of linear systems (which we'll say more about in §4.1.4). This means that they are important in the analysis of filters such as reverberators, equalizers, certain (but not all) ``audio effects'', etc.

Perhaps most importantly, from the point of view of computer music research, is that the human ear is a kind of spectrum analyzer. That is, the cochlea of the inner ear physically splits sound into its (quasi) sinusoidal components. This is accomplished by the basilar membrane in the inner ear: a sound wave injected at the oval window (which is connected via the bones of the middle ear to the ear drum), travels along the basilar membrane inside the coiled cochlea. The membrane starts out thick and stiff, and gradually becomes thinner and more compliant toward its apex (the helicotrema). A stiff membrane has a high resonance frequency while a thin, compliant membrane has a low resonance frequency (assuming comparable mass per unit length, or at least less of a difference in mass than in compliance). Thus, as the sound wave travels, each frequency in the sound resonates at a particular place along the basilar membrane. The highest audible frequencies resonate right at the entrance, while the lowest frequencies travel the farthest and resonate near the helicotrema. The membrane resonance effectively ``shorts out'' the signal energy at the resonant frequency, and it travels no further. Along the basilar membrane there are hair cells which ``feel'' the resonant vibration and transmit an increased firing rate along the auditory nerve to the brain. Thus, the ear is very literally a Fourier analyzer for sound, albeit nonlinear and using ``analysis'' parameters that are difficult to match exactly. Nevertheless, by looking at spectra (which display the amount of each sinusoidal frequency present in a sound), we are looking at a representation much more like what the brain receives when we hear.


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``Mathematics of the Discrete Fourier Transform (DFT), with Audio Applications --- Second Edition'', by Julius O. Smith III, W3K Publishing, 2007, ISBN 978-0-9745607-4-8.
Copyright © 2014-04-21 by Julius O. Smith III
Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA),   Stanford University
CCRMA