Sound waves are generated by any vibrating body. For example, when a violin string vibrates upon being bowed or plucked, its movement in one direction pushes the molecules of the air before it, crowding them together in its path. When it moves back again past its original position and on to the other side, it leaves behind it a nearly empty space, i.e., a space with relatively few molecules in it. In the meantime, however, the molecules which were at first crowded together have transmitted some of their energy of motion to other molecules still farther on and are returning to fill again the space originally occupied and now left empty by the retreating violin string. In other words, the vibratory motion set up by the violin string causes alternately in a given space a crowding together of the molecules of air (a condensation) and a thinning out of the molecules (a rarefaction). Taken together a condensation and a rarefaction make up a sound wave; such a wave is called longitudinal, or compressional, because the vibratory motion is forward and backward along the direction that the wave is following. Because such a wave travels by disturbing the particles of a material medium, sound waves cannot travel through a vacuum.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.