Doppler effect

Doppler effect

Doppler effect, change in the wavelength (or frequency) of energy in the form of waves, e.g., sound or light, as a result of motion of either the source or the receiver of the waves; the effect is named for the Austrian scientist Christian Doppler, who demonstrated the effect for sound. If the source of the waves and the receiver are approaching each other (because of the motion of either or both), the frequency of the waves will increase and the wavelength will be shortened—sounds will become higher pitched and light will appear bluer. If the sender and receiver are moving apart, sounds will become lower pitched and light will appear redder. A common example is the sudden drop in the pitch of a train whistle as the train passes a stationary listener. The Doppler effect in reflected radio waves is employed in radar to sense the velocity of the object under surveillance. In astronomy, the Doppler effect for light is used to measure the velocity (and indirectly distance) and rotation of stars and galaxies along the direction of sight. In the spectrum of nearly every star there are wavelengths, characteristic of atoms, that lie near but not quite coincident to the same wavelengths as measured in the laboratory. The small deviations or shifts are generally due to the relative motion of the celestial object and the earth. Both blue shifts and red shifts are observed for various objects, indicating relative motion both toward and away from the earth. Such shifts have been used to measure the orbital velocity of the earth, to detect binary stars and variable stars, and to detect rotation of other galaxies. The Doppler effect is responsible for the red shifts of distant galaxies, and also of quasars, and thus provides the best evidence for the expansion of the universe, as described by Hubble's law. In addition to observations of visible light, the Doppler effect for radio waves is utilized by astronomers to determine the velocities of dust clouds in the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy. These observations provided the first direct proof that our own galaxy is rotating. The Doppler shift in radar pulses reflected from the surfaces of Venus and Mercury have been analyzed to obtain new values for their periods of rotation about their axes.

The Doppler effect (or Doppler shift), named after Christian Doppler, is the change in frequency and wavelength of a wave for an observer moving relative to the source of the waves. It is commonly heard when a vehicle sounding a siren approaches, passes and recedes from an observer. The received frequency is increased (compared to the emitted frequency) during the approach, it is identical at the instant of passing by, and it is decreased during the recession.

For waves that propagate in a medium, such as sound waves, the velocity of the observer and of the source are relative to the medium in which the waves are transmitted. The total Doppler effect may therefore result from motion of the source, motion of the observer, or motion of the medium. Each of these effects is analyzed separately. For waves which do not require a medium, such as light or gravity in special relativity, only the relative difference in velocity between the observer and the source needs to be considered.


Doppler first proposed the effect in 1842 in his treatise "Über das farbige Licht der Doppelsterne und einiger anderer Gestirne des Himmels" (On the coloured light of the binary stars and some other stars of the heavens). The hypothesis was tested for sound waves by Buys Ballot in 1845. He confirmed that the sound's pitch was higher than the emitted frequency when the sound source approached him, and lower than the emitted frequency when the sound source receded from him. Hippolyte Fizeau discovered independently the same phenomenon on electromagnetic waves in 1848 (in France, the effect is sometimes called "effet Doppler-Fizeau"). In Britain, John Scott Russell made an experimental study of the Doppler effect (1848).

An English translation of Doppler's 1842 treatise can be found in "The search for Christian Doppler" by Alec Eden.


The relationship between observed frequency f' and emitted frequency f is given by:

f' = left(frac{v}{v + v_{s,r}} right) f ,
v , is the velocity of waves in the medium
v_{s,r} , is the radial component of the velocity of the source (the object emitting the wave) along a line from the source to the observer

Because we are using an inertial reference system, the velocity of an object moving towards the observer is considered as negative, so the observed frequency is higher than its emitted frequency (this is because the source's velocity is in the denominator). Conversely, the velocity of an object moving away from the observer is considered as positive, so the observed frequency is lower than its emitted frequency. When the object is at the same position as the observer, the observed frequency is briefly equal to its emitted frequency.

For all paths of an approaching object, the observed frequency that is first heard is higher than the object's emitted frequency. Thereafter there is a monotonic decrease in the observed frequency as it gets closer to the observer, through equality when it is level with the observer, and a continued monotonic decrease as it recedes from the observer. When the observer is very close to the path of the object, the transition from high to low frequency is very abrupt. When the observer is far from the path of the object, the transition from high to low frequency is gradual.

In the limit where the speed of the wave is much greater than the relative speed of the source and observer (this is often the case with electromagnetic waves, e.g. light), the relationship between observed frequency f′ and emitted frequency f is given by:

Change in frequency Observed frequency
Delta f=-frac{fv}{c}=-frac{v}{lambda}

f , is the transmitted frequency
v , is the velocity of the transmitter relative to the receiver in meters per second: negative when moving towards one another, positive when moving away
c , is the speed of wave (e.g. 3×108 m/s for electromagnetic waves travelling in a vacuum)
lambda , is the wavelength of the transmitted wave subject to change.

As mentioned previously, these two equations are only accurate to a first order approximation. However, they work reasonably well in the case considered by Doppler: when the speed between the source and receiver is slow relative to the speed of the waves involved and the distance between the source and receiver is large relative to the wavelength of the waves. If either of these two approximations are violated, the formulae are no longer accurate.


The frequency of the sounds that the source emits does not actually change. To understand what happens, consider the following analogy. Someone throws one ball every second in a man's direction. Assume that balls travel with constant velocity. If the thrower is stationary, the man will receive one ball every second. However, if the thrower is moving towards the man, he will receive balls more frequently because the balls will be less spaced out. The inverse is true if the thrower is moving away from the man. So it is actually the wavelength which is affected; as a consequence, the received frequency is also affected. It may also be said that the velocity of the wave remains constant whereas wavelength changes; hence frequency also changes.

If the moving source is emitting waves through a medium with an actual frequency f0, then an observer stationary relative to the medium detects waves with a frequency f given by

f = f_0 left (frac {v}{v + v_{s,r}} right ) which can be written as: f = f_0 left (1 - frac {v_{s,r}}{v+v_{s,r}} right ),

where v is the speed of the waves in the medium and vs, r is the speed of the source with respect to the medium (positive if moving away from the observer, negative if moving towards the observer), radial to the observer.

With a relatively slow moving source, vs, r is small in comparison to v and the equation approximates to

f = f_0 left (1 - frac {v_{s,r}}{v} right ).

A similar analysis for a moving observer and a stationary source yields the observed frequency (the observer's velocity being represented as vo):

f = f_0 left (1 - frac {v_0}{v} right ),

where the same convention applies : vo is positive if the observer is moving away from the source, and negative if the observer is moving towards the source.

These can be generalized into a single equation with both the source and receiver moving. However the limitations mentioned above still apply. When the more complicated exact equation is derived without using any approximations (just assuming that everything: source, receiver, and wave or signal are moving linearly) several interesting and perhaps surprising results are found. For example, as Lord Rayleigh noted in his classic book on sound, by properly moving it would be possible to hear a symphony being played backwards. This is the so-called "time reversal effect" of the Doppler effect. Other interesting cases are that the Doppler effect is time dependent in general (thus we need to know not only the source and receivers' velocities, but also their positions at a given time) and also in some circumstances it is possible to receive two signals or waves from a source (or no signal at all). In addition there are more possibilities than just the receiver approaching the signal and the receiver receding from the signal.

All these additional complications are for the classical—i.e., nonrelativistic Doppler effect. However, all these results also hold for the relativistic Doppler effect as well.

The first attempt to extend Doppler's analysis to light waves was soon made by Fizeau. In fact, light waves do not require a medium to propagate and the correct understanding of the Doppler effect for light requires the use of the Special Theory of Relativity. See relativistic Doppler effect.

Sloppy language

Craig Bohren pointed out that some physics textbooks erroneously state that the observed frequency increases as the object approaches an observer and then decreases only as the object passes the observer. In fact, the observed frequency of an approaching object declines monotonically from a value above the emitted frequency, through a value equal to the emitted frequency when the object is closest to the observer, and to values increasingly below the emitted frequency as the object recedes from the observer. Bohren proposed that this common misconception might occur because the intensity of the sound increases as an object approaches an observer and decreases once it passes and recedes from the observer. Or it is just sloppy language (in/decreases instead of is in/decreased)



The siren on a passing emergency vehicle will start out higher than its stationary pitch, slide down as it passes, and continue lower than its stationary pitch as it recedes from the observer. Astronomer John Dobson explained the effect thus:

"The reason the siren slides is because it doesn't hit you."

In other words, if the siren approached the observer directly, the pitch would remain constant (as vs, r is only the radial component) until the vehicle hit him, and then immediately jump to a new lower pitch. Because the vehicle passes by the observer, the radial velocity does not remain constant, but instead varies as a function of the angle between his line of sight and the siren's velocity:

v_{s, r}=v_scdot cos{theta}

where vs is the velocity of the object (source of waves) with respect to the medium, and theta is the angle between the object's forward velocity and the line of sight from the object to the observer.


The Doppler effect for electromagnetic waves such as light is of great use in astronomy and results in either a so-called redshift or blueshift. It has been used to measure the speed at which stars and galaxies are approaching or receding from us, that is, the radial velocity. This is used to detect if an apparently single star is, in reality, a close binary and even to measure the rotational speed of stars and galaxies.

The use of the Doppler effect for light in astronomy depends on our knowledge that the spectra of stars are not continuous. They exhibit absorption lines at well defined frequencies that are correlated with the energies required to excite electrons in various elements from one level to another. The Doppler effect is recognizable in the fact that the absorption lines are not always at the frequencies that are obtained from the spectrum of a stationary light source. Since blue light has a higher frequency than red light, the spectral lines of an approaching astronomical light source exhibit a blueshift and those of a receding astronomical light source exhibit a redshift.

Among the nearby stars, the largest radial velocities with respect to the Sun are +308 km/s (BD-15°4041, also known as LHS 52, 81.7 light-years away) and -260 km/s (Woolley 9722, also known as Wolf 1106 and LHS 64, 78.2 light-years away). Positive radial velocity means the star is receding from the Sun, negative that it is approaching.

Temperature measurement

Another use of the Doppler effect, which is found mostly in astronomy, is the estimation of the temperature of a gas which is emitting a spectral line. Due to the thermal motion of the gas, each emitter can be slightly red or blue shifted, and the net effect is a broadening of the line. This line shape is called a Doppler profile and the width of the line is proportional to the square root of the temperature of the gas, allowing the Doppler-broadened line to be used to measure the temperature of the emitting gas.


The Doppler effect is also used in some forms of radar to measure the velocity of detected objects. A radar beam is fired at a moving target—a car, for example, as radar is often used by police to detect speeding motorists—as it approaches or recedes from the radar source. Each successive wave has to travel further to reach the car, before being reflected and re-detected near the source. As each wave has to move further, the gap between each wave increases, increasing the wavelength. In some situations, the radar beam is fired at the moving car as it approaches, in which case each successive wave travels a lesser distance, decreasing the wavelength. In either situation, calculations from the Doppler effect accurately determine the car's velocity.

The proximity fuze which was developed during World War II also relies on Doppler radar.

Medical imaging and blood flow measurement

An echocardiogram can, within certain limits, produce accurate assessment of the direction of blood flow and the velocity of blood and cardiac tissue at any arbitrary point using the Doppler effect. One of the limitations is that the ultrasound beam should be as parallel to the blood flow as possible. Velocity measurements allow assessment of cardiac valve areas and function, any abnormal communications between the left and right side of the heart, any leaking of blood through the valves (valvular regurgitation), and calculation of the cardiac output. Contrast-enhanced ultrasound using gas-filled microbubble contrast media can be used to improve velocity or other flow-related medical measurements.

Although "Doppler" has become synonymous with "velocity measurement" in medical imaging, in many cases it is not the frequency shift (Doppler shift) of the received signal that is measured, but the phase shift (when the received signal arrives).

Velocity measurements of blood flow are also used in other fields of medical ultrasonography, such as obstetric ultrasonography and neurology. Velocity measurement of blood flow in arteries and veins based on Doppler effect is an effective tool for diagnosis of vascular problems like stenosis.

Flow measurement

Instruments such as the laser Doppler velocimeter (LDV), and Acoustic Doppler Velocimeter (ADV) have been developed to measure velocities in a fluid flow. The LDV emits a light beam and the ADV emits an ultrasonic acoustic burst, and measure the Doppler shift in wavelengths of reflections from particles moving with the flow. The actual flow is computed as a function of the water velocity and face. This technique allows non-intrusive flow measurements, at high precision and high frequency.

Velocity profile measurement

Developed originally for velocity measurements in medical applications (blood flows), Ultrasonic Doppler Velocimetry (UDV) can measure in real time complete velocity profile in almost any liquids containing particles in suspension such as dust, gas bubbles, emulsions. Flows can be pulsating, oscillating, laminar or turbulent, stationary or transient. This technique is fully non-invasive.

Underwater acoustics

In military applications the Doppler shift of a target is used to ascertain the speed of a submarine using both passive and active sonar systems. As a submarine passes by a passive sonobuoy, the stable frequencies undergo a Doppler shift, and the speed and range from the sonobuoy can be calculated. If the sonar system is mounted on a moving ship or an another submarine, then the relative velocity can be calculated.


The Leslie speaker, associated with and predominantly used with the Hammond B-3 Organ, takes advantage of the Doppler Effect by using an electric motor to rotate a speaker continuously, rapidly alternating the received frequency of a keyboard note.

See also

Further reading

  • Doppler and the Doppler effect, E. N. da C. Andrade, Endeavour Vol.XVIII No. 69, January 1959 (published by ICI London). Historical account of Doppler's original paper and subsequent developments.


External links

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