Vibration, periodic back-and-forth motion of the particles of an elastic body or medium, commonly resulting when almost any physical system is displaced from its equilibrium condition and allowed to respond to the forces that tend to restore equilibrium.
Vibrations fall into two categories: free and forced. Free vibrations occur when the system is disturbed momentarily and then allowed to move without restraint. A classic example is provided by a weight suspended from a spring. In equilibrium, the system has minimum energy and the weight is at rest. If the weight is pulled down and released, the system will respond by vibrating vertically.
The vibrations of a spring are of a particularly simple kind known as simple harmonic motion (SHM). This occurs whenever the disturbance to the system is countered by a restoring force that is exactly proportional to the degree of disturbance. In this case, the restoring force is the tension or compression in the spring, which (according to Hooke’s law) is proportional to the displacement of the spring. In simple harmonic motion, the periodic oscillations are of the mathematical form called sinusoidal.
Most systems that suffer small disturbances counter them by exerting some form of restoring force. It is frequently a good approximation to suppose that the force is proportional to the disturbance, so that SHM is, in the limiting case of small disturbances, a generic feature of vibrating systems. One characteristic of SHM is that the period of the vibration is independent of its amplitude. Such systems therefore are used in regulating clocks. The oscillation of a pendulum, for instance, approximates SHM if the amplitude is small.