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Physics of Music Experiment 13

A Study of Lissajous Patterns


To study Lissajous patterns using an oscilloscope.


Oscilloscope (Elenco S-1325 or similar), two audio generators (Elenco GF8026 or similar),
connecting cables.


When two different frequencies that are in phase with each other are applied to the horizontal
and vertical inputs of an oscilloscope (or channels 1 and 2 of a dual beam oscilloscope), and
the ratio of the frequencies is a ratio of integers, stationary patterns are observed on the
screen. These patterns are called Lissajous patterns (named after the Frenchman, Jules
Antoine Lissajous (1822-1880) who first investigated them in detail in 1860 while doing sound
experiments). Similar patterns had previously been found by Nathaniel Bowditch (1773 -
1838), an American mathematician and astronomer who lived in Boston, Mass.
Jules Lissajous entered the cole Normale Suprieure in France in 1841. Afterwards he
became professor of mathematics at the Lyce Saint-Louis. In 1850 he was awarded a
doctorate for a thesis on vibrating bars using Chladni's sand pattern method to determine
nodal positions. Lissajous went on to study sound waves produced by a tuning fork in contact
with water, and in 1855 he found a way of studying acoustic vibrations by reflecting a light
beam from a mirror attached to a vibrating object onto a screen. He set up two tuning forks
at right angles, with one vibrating at twice the frequency of the other, and found that the
curved lines would combine to make a figure of eight pattern. Some typical Lissajous patterns
are shown below.
fx and fy are the frequencies in the x and y directions.


1. Connect one of the audio generators to the input-1 (the x or horizontal input) of the
oscilloscope. Adjust the frequency of the audio generator to 500 Hz, set the sine/square
wave switch to sine, and the output control to midway.
2. Connect the other audio generator to the input-2 (the y or vertical input) and adjust its
frequency to 500 Hz and the sine/square wave switch to sine as for the other audio
generator. Adjust the x and y amplitudes so that the screen display is square. Now
adjust the frequency of the second audio generator to obtain a stationary circle. Read
and record the frequency of the second audio generator dial. If your apparatus also has
a digital frequency ouput, read the frequency to the nearest 1 Hz.
3. Obtain the 8 Lissajous patterns shown above. In each case measure the frequency of the
second audio generator and enter the values in the table below. The frequency of the
first audio generator must remain at 500 Hz throughout the experiment.


Frequency of Ratio of integers f/500 as a

Lissajous figure from Lissajous
audio generator decimal
number figures (fy/fx)
in Hz (4 figures)


1. Plot a graph of the ratio of integers (on the y-axis) versus the values of f/500 (on the x-
axis) What is the slope of the graph? What does this tell you?

2. How could Lissajous patterns be used to determine the frequency of a sound source?

Dr. John Askill, 1999.

Last updated on Wednesday 19th December, 2007