Title says it all - does the shape of a wave have any effect on how we perceive it as a sound?


4 Answers 4


Yes, but not directly - instead, we perceive the different amounts of energy in different harmonics. :)

To illustrate the differences, here are some graphed waveforms, and here's a YouTube video which demonstrates some basic waveforms.

A square wave only has odd harmonics (the base frequency, 3x the base frequency, 5x, 7x, etc.) and that gives it a distinct character. This is similar to the triangle wave (which also only has odd harmonics, but in different amounts). They are both very tonally different to the sawtooth wave, which contains both odd and even harmonics.

However, since it's mostly determined the relative amplitude of the harmonics (we aren't very good at hearing phase, except between our two ears) it's possible for two waveforms to look different but sound basically identical, if their harmonics have the same energy.

Here is a video which demonstrates that: at 0:02 it plays a conventional sawtooth waveform, but at 0:12 it plays a different-looking waveform which has the same energy in its harmonics, so sounds the same.

Edit: as @MacTuesday mentioned, the distinction between a continuous tone and a quickly-repeating sound can be ambiguous, particularly for very low pitches. Phase/timing information is not meaningless, but for the cases you're thinking of, harmonic energy is the primary aspect that determines timbre of continuous sounds.

  • 1
    The musical word here is timbre; it's the quality that differs between a clarinet, a trumpet, and a violin playing middle C. Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 19:45
  • This answer misses the role of the phase spectrum in lower pitches. People will register individual transients if they repeat slowly enough, even above 40 Hz. In such cases, the waveform absolutely will affect timbre, even if the amplitude spectrum remains the same. Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 23:45
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    @J The results of a Fourier transform are complex numbers, which have both an amplitude and a phase. We are more sensitive to the amplitude than the phase - see the second linked video in my answer as an illustration.
    – cloudfeet
    Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 15:01
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    @MackTuesday: Yeah absolutely, and with lower pitches it's tied up with aspects of exactly how you're performing the frequency analysis (window length, FFT or IIR stack, etc.), and human perception interpretation is another layer on top of that. That seemed a little more detail than the question needed, but I'll add a note.
    – cloudfeet
    Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 15:16

Of course. You can trivially prove this with programmable synthesizers or software that allows you to customize an audio wave form for output. There are distinctive differences between regular sine/cosine forms, rectangular waves, and triangular (saw) waves.


You've got it the wrong way round. Waveform is a pictorial representation of sound.

  • As the saying goes in computer science: "Data is symbols plus interpretation." Both ways of looking at the topic are valid. Commented May 7, 2019 at 13:57

Duty cycle of the waves can also affect the sound. Sometimes just in the perceived volume, sometimes in the tone(s) heard.

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