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EXPERIMENT 3 - Coupled Mechanical Oscillators


This experiment studies a vibrating string under tension with point masses added at
several locations along the string. The restoring force is from the tension in the string,
making each mass an oscillator, and because the string connects adjacent masses they
are coupled oscillators. The objective of the experiment is to compare the theoretically
predicted resonant frequencies for oscillation of the masses with their measured resonant


The resonant frequencies for oscillation of the point masses are governed by four sets of
equations. These correspond to the four experimental configurations to be used. The first
case deals with the resonant frequencies of a string with rigid supports at each end
separated by a distance L. The second case concerns the string having a single added
point mass positioned at a distance L/4 from one end. The third case treats two added
masses positioned at L/4 and L/2. The final case deals with the resonances for a system
with three added masses at L/4, L/2, and 3L/4.

CASE 1: The expression for the resonant frequencies of a string under tension T, and
rigidly supported at each end is given by Equation 3.1.

n T
vn = ; (3.1)

where is the mass per unit length, T is the tension in the string, L is the length and n is
an integer greater than zero. There are an infinite number of resonant frequencies; they
occur when an intergral number (n) of half-wavelengths fit the dimensions of the string (L).

Figure 3.1 Standing waves in a string, shown for n=1,2,3,4.

CASE 2: Consider the system with a single point mass placed at L/4, illustrated in Figure
3.2. A simple treatment of this problem is to ignore the mass of the string itself and use a
restoring force in the y direction which is the sum of the y components of the tension for
each part of the string. The resonant frequency of motion of the mass, m, is given by
Equation 3.2 under the conditions that the displacement y is small, the mass m is large
compared to the mass of the string ( L), and the tension in the string is T.

2 T
vo = ;
3mL (3.2)

Figure 3.2. Case 2 the normal mode for one mass at L/4.

CASE 3: If a second mass is added to the string at a distance L/2 from the support, as in
Figure 3.3, the force on one mass is dependent on the position of the other. This is called
a coupled oscillator system. The motions of the two masses are not independent of each
other. Certain relationships between the motions of the masses exist for which both
masses undergo natural (undriven) periodic motion at the same frequency. This system
has two degrees of freedom and correspondingly has two normal modes of motion at two
natural frequencies. These two frequencies are given in Equations (3.3 and 3.4) as:
+ = T / mL (3.3)

= T / mL (3.4)

Figure 3.3. Case 3 - normal modes for masses at L/4 and L/2.
CASE 4: The last case has three degrees of freedom by addition of a third mass at 3L/4,
illustrated in Figure 3.4. The resonant frequencies for this case are given by:

1 (3.5)
0 = 2T / mL

+ = 0 1+1 / 2
= 0 11 / 2

Figure 3.4 Case 4 normal modes for three masses on string.

EFFECT OF THE WEIGHT OF THE STRING: Calculation of the ratio of the mass of each
weight added to the mass of the string itself will show that this ratio is not much larger than
unity, and thus does not meet the criteria of our simple theory. Consequently, we are led to
suspect that the mass of the string may play a significant part in determining the resonant
frequency of our system. Reference to Equation 4.5.34, page 163 of Morse and Ingard
yields an equation for the resonant frequency of a string-mass system with one mass m at
a distance x0 from the driven end. This equation accounts for the string mass as well as
the added mass and is given in Equation 3.8:

2 x0 m x m
tan ( L / c ) 1 sin + sin 2 0 =0
c 2 c c c

Using c = T / to compute the value of c, and iterating in the left hand expression
until the expression equals zero, will yield a corrected value for the resonant frequency for
Case 2 which is the configuration that is most sensitive to the added mass of the string.
This equation can be readily solved using MATLAB.

Measurements should be carried out to determine the resonant frequencies of each string-
mass system discussed above. To make the physical situation conform as closely as
practical to the situation treated theoretically, it is necessary that the masses added to the
string be larger than the string's mass. This will allow us to neglect the mass of the string
to first order and consider only the added "point" masses. The masses must also be small
compared to the mass of the end supports so that the end supports may be considered
rigid. Masses on-the-order-of 0.15 to 1 gm, used with a 1 meter long .005" diameter
Aluminum wire have been found to be adequate to meet both the requirements of theory
and of physical reality. The masses used are "split shot" fishing weights that are crimped
on the wire at the proper locations after first having been weighed. Be careful to crimp the
shot symmetrically on the wire to prevent excessive spinning when oscillating.

Figure 3.5 Block diagram for experiment 3.

The experimental setup is shown in Figure 3.5. A frequency generator drives a power
amplifier connected to an audio speaker near one end of the string. The vibrating string
passes between the pole faces of a magnet, inducing a voltage in the conductive
(aluminum) string, that is detected using a transformer and preamplifier. Putting the
driving voltage on the x axis of an oscilloscope and the voltage created by the string
motion on the y axis, creates a Lissajous pattern on the oscilloscope (Figure 3.6). The
Lissajous pattern is displayed by operating the scope in the "x-y" mode. The shape of the
resulting pattern identifies harmonic content and phase. The fundamental frequency of
vibration will give rise to ellipsies and their degenerate forms of circles and straight lines
depending on the relative amplitudes and phases of the x and y signals. Other Lissajous
figure shapes will indicate a response to harmonics of the driving frequency other than the

Figure 3.6 Lissajous figure examples.

The first step is the measurement of the fundamental frequency of the unloaded string.
With the end supports separated by one meter, the frequency is varied until the resonant
state is observed. Then note the frequencies for at least the next 5 higher order modes of
vibration (n=2,3,4,5,6).

The signal generator is tuned for maximum sensor generated signal as observed either on
the oscilloscope or on the RMS voltmeter. The driving frequency is supplied by the
frequency synthesizer. The systhesizer should be slewed slowly through the calculated
resonant frequency since the resonant frequency responses are very sharp and a very
slow and careful adjustment of frequency is required to accurately locate the maximum

The amplitude of oscillation at resonance should be kept as low as possible by adjusting

the drive voltage, consistent with an accurate frequency measurement. The system will
exhibit a frequency shift at high drive levels due to the nonlinearity of the vibrational

Following the same procedure the resonant frequencies can be observed for each mass-
string configuration (cases 2, 3 and 4). Two different values of tension should be used for
each configuration. You may also notice a number of spurious resonances. Be both aware
and wary of these and be sure that you are measuring the appropriate resonant mode of
the coupled masses.

Plan your sequence of measurements to avoid removing and replacing the weights more
than necessary. Remove the weights after completing your measurements to leave the
string in an unloaded condition for the next lab team.


Compute the theoretical resonant frequencies from the value of the tension in the wire and
the masses of the weights for the weightless string model. Obtain an iterative solution to
equation 3.8 for case 2 and compare that resonant frequency with that of the weightless
string model. Compare your theoretical values with the experimental resonant

What percentage error in the tension would be required to account for the differences
between your theoretical and experimental values? How does the wire diameter affect the
resonant frequency?


Morse and Ingard; Theoretical Acoustics, Chapters 3 and 5.