Simple Harmonic Motion


An oscillating object is an object with a repeating periodic motion between a maximum and a minimum displacement from an equilibrium. Examples of oscillating objects include a spring or a swinging pendulum.


Below are some key terms used to describe the characteristics of an oscillating object:

Phase Difference

This is a measure of how “in step” different oscillating objects are. If two objects are at the same position and travelling in the same direction, they are said to be in phase. If not, there exists a phase difference which can be calculated with:

$$ \text{phase difference} = \frac{2\pi\Delta T}{T} $$

Where $T$ is the time period and $\Delta T$ is the time difference between two objects passing the same point in the same direction.

Graphs of Oscillations

By plotting displacement, velocity and acceleration against time curves, the motion of an oscillating object can be analysed. In the diagrams below, $T$ represents the time taken for one complete cycle of motion.

Simple Harmonic Motion

Simple harmonic motion is defined as an oscillating motion in which the acceleration is proportional to the displacement and is always in the opposite direction to the displacement. The acceleration always acts towards the equilibrium. The acceleration can be calculated with:

$$ a = -(2\pi f)^{2}x $$

Where $a$ is the acceleration ($ms^{-2}$), $f$ is the frequency ($\text{Hz}$) and $x$ is the displacement from the equilibrium position at that point ($m$).

Frequency and Time Period

In simple harmonic motion, the frequency and time period are independent of the amplitude. This means that the time taken for one complete cycle is the same regardless of the initial displacement from equilibrium.


The velocity of an object in simple harmonic motion can be found using the formula:
$$ v = \pm 2\pi f \sqrt{A^{2} - x^{2}} $$
Where $v$ is the velocity ($ms^{-1}$), $f$ is the frequency ($\text{Hz}$), $A$ is the amplitude ($m$) and $x$ is the displacement ($m$) from equilibrium at that point.

Sine Curves

The displacement against time graph for an object in simple harmonic motion is a cosine curve. The equation for this curve is therefore:

$$ x = Acos(2\pi ft) $$

Where $x$ is the displacement ($m$), $t$ is the time ($s$), $A$ is the amplitude ($m$) and $f$ is the frequency ($\text{Hz}$). This equation only holds true if at $t=0$ the displacement is at a maximum.

Maximum Acceleration

When the displacement is at a maximum, the acceleration is at a maximum in the opposite direction. This is shown by the equation:
$$ a_{\text{max}} = -(2\pi f)^{2}A $$
Where $a_{\text{max}}$ is the maximum acceleration ($ms^{-2}$), $f$ is the frequency ($\text{Hz}$) and $A$ is the amplitude ($m$) at that point.

Maximum Velocity

By using the formula for the velocity:
$$ v = \pm 2\pi f \sqrt{A^{2} - x^{2}} $$
When the object passes through the equilibrium at $x = 0$, the object is at maximum velocity. This means that the maximum velocity $v_{\text{max}}$ can be calculated with:

$$ v_{\text{max}} = 2\pi f A$$
Where $v_{\text{max}}$ is the maximum velocity ($ms^{-1}$), $f$ is the frequency ($\text{Hz}$) and $A$ is the amplitude ($m$).

Applications of Simple Harmonic Motion



Free Oscillators

If no external forces act on an oscillator, it is known as a free oscillator. If external forces are applied, the amplitude of oscillations decrease, eventually resulting in the oscillating motion to stop.

As no external forces act on the object, no energy is lost to the surroundings. The total energy of the system is therefore the sum of the kinetic energy, $E_{k}$ and potential energy, $E_{p}$.
$$E_{total} = E_{k} + E_{p}$$

Pendulum on swing.

  1. At maximum displacement, the $E_{p}$ is at a maximum and as the velocity is zero, the $E_{k}$ is zero.
  2. As the velocity increases towards the equilibrium, the $E_{p}$ is converted into $E_{k}$. At equilibrium where the object is travelling at maximum velocity, the $E_{p}$ is zero and the $E_{k}$ is at a maximum.
  3. As the oscillating object moves towards the maximum amplitude in the opposite direction, the $E_{k}$ is converted back into $E_{p}$.

Energy Displacement Curves

The potential and kinetic energy of an oscillating object can be plotted on a graph of energy against displacement. On this graph, the total energy is constant and equal to the potential energy at the maximum displacement.

Graph of amplitude against frequency.


Damping is where energy in an oscillating system is dissipated to the surroundings resulting in a decreasing amplitude. Damping is caused by dissipative forces such as air resistance or friction.

Graph of damping against displacement.

Periodic Force

A force which is applied periodically to an oscillating object is known as a periodic force. When a system oscillates without a periodic force acting on the object, its frequency of oscillation is known as the natural frequency.

When a periodic force is applied to an oscillating system, the system undergoes forced oscillations. The frequency at which the periodic force is applied is known as the applied frequency.


When the applied frequency is equal to the natural frequency of the oscillating object, the amplitude of oscillations become very large and the phase difference between the displacement and periodic force is $\frac{\pi}{2}$ radians. At this point the system is resonating. Increasing or reducing the applied frequency results in the amplitude of oscillation decreasing.

Graph of amplitude against frequency.

The peak on the graph shows the point where the applied frequency is equal to the natural frequency and the system is resonating.

© Andrew Deniszczyc, 2018