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Harmonic oscillator
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Harmonic oscillator

A harmonic oscillator is a mechanical system in which there exists a returning force F directly proportionate to the displacement x, i.e.

where k is a constant. It can also refer to any physical system that is analogous to this mechanical system, in which some other quantity behaves in the same way as x. Examples of harmonic oscillators include pendulums (in small angles), masses on springss, and RLC circuits.

If F is the only force acting on the mechanical system, the system is called a simple harmonic oscillator. The motion of a simple harmonic oscillator, called simple harmonic motion, is essentially a sine function oscillating about the equilibrium displacement, x = 0, at which the returning force is zero.

The potential energy V associated with such a returning force is called a harmonic potential. It has the form

The simple harmonic oscillator can also be formulated in terms of the Lagrangian

or the Hamiltonian

The following article discusses the harmonic oscillator in terms of classical mechanics. See the article quantum harmonic oscillator for a discussion of the harmonic oscillator in quantum mechanics.

Table of contents
1 Full mathematical definition
2 A final note on mathematics
3 See also

Full mathematical definition

Most harmonic oscillators, at least approximately, solve the differential equation:

where t is time, b is the damping constant, ωo is the characteristic angular frequency, and Aocos(ωt) represents something driving the system with amplitude Ao and angular frequency ω. x is the measurement that is oscillating; it can be position, current, or nearly anything else. The angular frequency is related to the frequency, f, by:

Important terms

Simple harmonic oscillator

A simple harmonic oscillator is simply an oscillator that is neither damped nor driven. So the equation to describe one is:

Physically, the above never actually exists, since there will always be friction or some other resistance, but two approximate examples are a mass on a spring and an
LC circuit.

In the case of a mass hanging on a spring, Newton's Laws, combined with Hooke's law for the behavior of a spring, states that:

where k is the spring constant, m is the mass, y is the position of the mass, and a is its acceleration. Noting that acceleration is the second derivative of position, we can rewrite the equation as follows:

The easiest way to solve the above equation is to recognize that when d2z/dt2 ∝ -z, z is some form of sine. So we try the solution:

where A is the amplitude, δ is the phase shift, and ω is the angular frequency. Substituting, we have:

and thus (dividing both sides by -A cos(ωt + δ)):

The above formula reveals that the angular frequency of the solution is only dependent upon the physical characteristics of the system, and not the initial conditions (those are represented by A and δ). That means that what was labelled ω is in fact ωo. This will become important later.

Driven harmonic oscillator

Satisfies equation:

Good example:

AC LC circuit.

a few notes about what the response of the circuit to different AC frequencies.

Damped harmonic oscillator

Satisfies equation:

good example:

weighted spring underwater

Note well: underdamped, critically damped

Damped, driven harmonic oscillator


The general solution is a sum of a
transient (the solution for damped undriven harmonic oscillator, homogenous ODE) and the steady state (particular solution of the unhomogenous ODE). The steady state solution is


is the absolute value of the impedance


is the phase of the oscillation.

One might see that for certain frequency the amplitude (relative to a given ) is maximal. This occurs for the frequency

and called resonance of displacement.


RLC circuit

Notes for above apply, transient vs steady state response, and quality factor.

A final note on mathematics

For a more complete description of how to solve the above equation, see the article on differential equations.

See also