Reader Questions

Reader Question: Resonating Bottles

Reader shoebill-san asks:

why does it make that weird sound when i blow over a bottle? i did a science experiment in college where we looked at the resonance in a beaker at different water levels, is it like that? related?

Blowing across the top of a bottle creates what’s called Helmholtz resonance, where air inside the neck of the bottle actually vibrates up and down, like you see in the animation above. The stream of air from your mouth creates low pressure just outside the bottle, pulling some of the air out. That air will tend to overshoot, ultimately causing pressure in the bottle neck to drop lower. That vacuum will pull air back into the bottle, at which point the low pressure your blowing supplies pulls it back out, and so on. The actual sound you hear comes from those puffs of moving air. In reality, they move too fast to see; the animation comes from a high-speed video, and I highly recommend watching the full vid.

From your description, I’m not 100% sure what the experiment you did in college was, but I’m guessing it was some variation of the glass harp, where you rub a partially-filled glass and get an eerie sound that varies depending on how much water is in the glass. Like the bottle example above, that’s an example of resonance, but the two are different. In the bottle, it’s the air that’s resonating. For the glass harp, it’s the glass walls themselves that are resonating. The liquid inside just changes the pitch by slowing down the speed at which the glass’s walls vibrate. For a full and fantastic explanation of how that works, check out this video by Dan Quinn. (Image credit: N. Moore, source)

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