How Can You Cancel Out Sound?

The key thing about sound waves is that the result at your ear is the sum of all the sound waves hitting your ear at that time. If you are listening to a band, even though you may hear several distinct sources of sound, the pressure waves hitting your ear drum all add together, so your ear drum only feels one pressure at any given moment.

Now comes the cool part: It is possible to produce a sound wave that is exactly the opposite of another wave. This is the basis for those noise-canceling headphones you may have seen. Take a look at the figure below. The wave on top and the second wave are both pure tones. If the two waves are in phase, they add up to a wave with the same frequency but twice the amplitude. This is called constructive interference. But, if they are exactly out of phase, they add up to zero. This is called destructive interference. At the time when the first wave is at its maximum pressure, the second wave is at its minimum. If both of these waves hit your ear drum at the same time, you would not hear anything because the two waves always add up to zero.

How sound waves add and subtract

In the next section, we'll see how the muffler is designed to create waves that cause as much destructive interference as possible.