Sound travels in waves, which function much the same as ocean waves do. One wave cycle is a complete wave, consisting of both the up half (crest) and down half (trough). Waves also have a certain amplitude which is the measure of how strong the wave is; the higher the amplitude, the higher the crests and deeper the troughs. Waves don’t usually reflect when they strike other waves. Instead, they combine. If the amplitudes of two waves have the same sign (either both positive or both negative), they will add together to form a wave with a larger amplitude. This is called constructive interference. If the two amplitudes have opposite signs, they will subtract to form a combined wave with lower amplitude. This is what is called Destructive Interference, which is a subfield of the larger study in physics known as wave propagation.
An interesting example of this is the loudspeaker. When music is played on the loudspeaker, sound waves emanate from the front and back of the speaker. Since they are out of phase, they diffract into the entire region around the speaker. The two waves interfere destructively and cancel each other, particularly at very low frequencies. But when the speaker is held up behind baffle, which in this case consists of a wooden sheet with a circular hole cut in it, the sounds can no longer diffract and mix while they are out of phase, and as a consequence the intensity increases enormously. This is why loudspeakers are often mounted in boxes, so that the sound from the back cannot interfere with the sound from the front.
Scientists and engineers use destructive interference for a number of applications to levels reduce of ambient sound and noise. One example of this is the modern electronic automobile muffler. This device senses the sound propagating down the exhaust pipe and creates a matching sound with opposite phase. These two sounds interfere destructively, muffling the noise of the engine. Another example is in industrial noise control. This involves sensing the ambient sound in a workplace, electronically reproducing a sound with the opposite phase, and then introducing that sound into the environment so that it interferes destructively with the ambient sound to reduce the overall sound level.
For a hands-on demonstration of how destructive interference works, click on this link.
We have written many articles about destructive interference for Universe Today. Here’s an article about constructive waves, and here’s an article about the Casimir Effect.
If you’d like more info on destructive interference, check out Running Interference, and here’s a link to NASA Science page about Interference.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Wave Particle Duality. Listen here, Episode 83: Wave Particle Duality.