Welcome to practical physicsPracticle physics - practical activities designed for use in the classroom with 11 to 19 year olds

Examples of simple harmonic motion

Class practical

A circus with many different examples of simple harmonic motion.

Simple pendulum

Apparatus and materials

Station A - Simple Pendulum

stands, 3

clamps, 3

bosses, 3

G-clamps, 3

pairs of 5 cm wood or metal blocks as jaws, 3

pendulum bobs, 3, on strings with lengths in ratio 1:2:4  

Torsional pendulum

Apparatus and materials

Station B - Torsional Pendulum

pair of 5 cm wood or metal blocks as jaws

stand, clamp and boss


short wooden rod

wire, Eureka, effective length 50 cm, 26 SWG

Vibrating Lath

Apparatus and materials

Station C - Vibrating Lath


metre rule


Oscillating water column

Apparatus and materials

Station D - Oscillating water column

U-tube of water 2.5 m, filled halfway up

disposable mouthpieces, to protect hygiene or use a simple puffer bottle to start the oscillations

Rolling ball

Apparatus and materials

Station E - Rolling ball

steel ball or marble

bowl, shallow and spherical


Apparatus and materials

Station F - Wig-wag

wig-wag, with 3 removable masses

G-clamps, 2

Curtain rail, safety screen holders

Apparatus and materials

Station G

curtain rail, 60 cm length, 3 (circular shape, parabolic shape & V-shape) mounted on an appropriate board

safety screen holders, 2

steel ball or marble

Undamped light beam galvanometer circuit

Apparatus and materials

Station H Undamped light beam galvanometer

light beam galvanometer

cell holder with one cell


resistance substitution box


Health & Safety and Technical notes

Read our standard health & safety guidance

At station B, the rod used for the torsional pendulum must be balanced. Two rods fastened together with elastic bands or a shorter length of wire may also be tried. 

At station C, provide a second boss-head so that students can investigate the effect of increasing the load. The position of the boss head along the length of the metre rule could also be varied. 
At station D, have students alter the water levels by blowing into the tube or use a simple puffer bottle. The water will then perform damped harmonic motion. Obtaining a time trace is not easy, since the period is short and damping is high. One possibility would be using a light beam and a scalar timer, with repeated timings.

At station G, set up the board leaning backwards a little, at about 10° - 15°. 

At station H, set up the circuit with the galvanometer on its least sensitive scale; then increase the sensitivity until, with a resistance of over 500 kW, the spot reaches almost a full-scale deflection with the switch closed. Then, with the galvanometer on its 'direct' setting, open the switch: the spot will oscillate about its central zero position.


At each station, displace the system from its equilibrium position and carefully observe what happens. Listen to the differences if a sound is made.

Teaching notes

1 These experiments can give students a qualitative appreciation of a range of oscillators. Encourage them to use their own initiative to develop a description (graphical or otherwise) of the motion of an oscillator in its cycle. Careful work will provide the basis for discussions about the displacement, velocity and acceleration of the oscillator. You could introduce the terms displacement, amplitude, period, frequency. 

2 Features common to all harmonic oscillations are: 

  • each complete oscillation of a system takes the same time 
  • a force returns the system to its equilibrium position when displaced 
  • an inertia factor makes the system overshoot its equilibrium position when in motion.  

If the acceleration of a body is directly proportional to its distance from a fixed point, and is always directed towards that point, the motion is simple harmonic. 
Some systems have a period of oscillation which depends on the mass. In many systems, the amplitude of oscillation decreases with time. 
The link from acceleration of an oscillator to the force on the oscillator is obvious but should nonetheless be stressed as later modelling depends upon consideration of the changes in the force on an oscillator during its cycle. 
3 Expected results for some of the stations: 
A The periodic time, T, depends on the length, l. (The motion is isochronous.) T ∝ l½
C This behaves like a very large ticker-timer blade. 
D The motion is damped by fluid friction but is clearly isochronous. Ask students whether period be the same if a denser liquid is used. The force tending to return the liquid to its equilibrium position will be rgDhA, where r is the fluid density, g is gravitational field strength, Dh is the difference in liquid column heights, and A is the column cross-section.  
E Listen to the sound: what does this tell you about the motion? The amplitude decreases but the frequency remains unaltered. 
F Load the end of the wig-wag with a variable number of masses so that it oscillates sideways. Note the affect of mass on the time for one oscillation. 

G Listen to the sound the ball makes as it rolls or slides along the tracks. The circular track will give what sounds like an isochronous motion; the parabolic track gives a frequency that increases as the amplitude decreases; the V-shaped track is not isochronous at all.

H, A time trace for one oscillation can be obtained by photography, using a multi-slit stroboscope. Students could also record how the amplitude dies away, and isochronous property of the oscillations.


Related experiments

An introduction to simple harmonic motion

Moving energy from one thing to another 2

Broomstick pendulum, sinusoidal motion


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