# Does plucking a guitar string create a standing wave?

Yes, plucking a guitar string does create standing waves, but...

**No**, plucking a guitar string does not create **a** standing wave, as the sum of standing waves is in general not a standing wave (thanks for Ben Crowell for pointing this out), since a standing wave must have a stationary spatial dependence and a well-defined frequency:

$$ y(x,t) \propto \sin(2\pi x/\lambda)\cos(\omega t).$$

The initial perturbation is not sinusoidal, but instead contains a plethora of frequencies, of which only remain, after a transient, the resonant ones - which correspond to some of the possible standing waves. It's the sum of those that compose the vibration you'll observe.

The counter-propagating waves, if you want to model each of the standing waves this way, you get from the reflections at the cord's ends.

For more details see this answer and, especially, the answers to the question Why do harmonics occur when you pluck a string?.

The wave created will obey the boundary conditions for all time and in initial conditions at the moment of "pluck". To satisfy the initial conditions one needs to Expand (Fourier transform) the initial shape and initial velocity profile (derivative of shape with respect to time) in an infinite series of the "standing wave" solutions. The time evolution of the profile will cause energy to move back and forth from different modes, if there is a damping mechanism higher frequencies will decay faster eventually leaving the fundamental as the only noticeable mode vibrating.

So, in a sense the answer to this is that a plucked string contains an infinite number of standing waves, and eventually only one standing wave. Based on the dictionary definition of standing wave this is not truly a standing wave as the bulk amplitude profile changes in both time and location between the nodes.

Because a standing wave is caused by two identical waves traveling in opposite directions, a guitar string cannot create a standing wave. So a plucked guitar string only makes a vibration, not a standing wave.

This is wrong. Suppose you pluck a string in the middle, i.e. you hold up the middle part and release it. All solutions to the wave equation are traveling waves, moving left or right, but this plucked string starts with zero initial velocity. How can you get a string that doesn't move out of solutions that all move? By superposing identical waves moving in opposite directions.

There's an excellent demonstration of this here. As the two opposite moving waves separate, a plateau is formed. It grows until the whole string is horizontal, at which point its momentum makes the pluck reform, flipped over. This repeats indefinitely in the ideal case; it is the textbook example of a standing wave. You start with a superposition of oppositely moving waves, they reflect off the ends of the string, and the process repeats.

As has been pointed out above, there are other ways to define the term "standing wave", but under the definition your teacher was using, plucking a guitar string definitely forms a standing wave. Sadly, high school physics is bad. You have to spend a lot of time memorizing made-up distinctions, like "standing waves" vs. "vibrations", or "interference" vs. "diffraction" that practicing physicists don't care about, and the teachers don't even define consistently. Then you get quizzed on these terms, because exam writers are too lazy to write questions about actual physics. It’s a bad system, but there’s nothing you can do but put up with it until you get to college.