A single, all-encompassing definition for the term wave is not straightforward. A vibration can be defined as a back-and-forth motion around a reference value. However, a vibration is not necessarily a wave. An attempt to define the necessary and sufficient characteristics that qualify a phenomenon as a wave results in a blurred line.
The term wave is often intuitively understood as referring to a transport of spatial disturbances that are generally not accompanied by a motion of medium occupying this space as a whole. In a wave, the energy of a vibration is moving away from the source in the form of a disturbance within the surrounding medium (Hall 1982, p. 8). However, this motion is problematic for a standing wave (for example, a wave on a string), where energy is moving in both directions equally, or for electromagnetic (e.g., light) waves in a vacuum, where the concept of medium does not apply and interaction with a target is the key to wave detection and practical applications. There are water waves on the ocean surface; gamma waves and light waves emitted by the Sun; microwaves used in microwave ovens and in radar equipment; radio waves broadcast by radio stations; and sound waves generated by radio receivers, telephone handsets and living creatures (as voices), to mention only a few wave phenomena.
It may appear that the description of waves is closely related to their physical origin for each specific instance of a wave process. For example, acoustics is distinguished from optics in that sound waves are related to a mechanical rather than an electromagnetic wave transfer caused by vibration. Concepts such as mass, momentum, inertia, or elasticity, become therefore crucial in describing acoustic (as distinct from optic) wave processes. This difference in origin introduces certain wave characteristics particular to the properties of the medium involved. For example, in the case of air: vortices, radiation pressure, shock waves etc.; in the case of solids: Rayleigh waves, dispersion; and so on.
Other properties, however, although usually described in terms of origin, may be generalized to all waves. For such reasons, wave theory represents a particular branch of physics that is concerned with the properties of wave processes independently of their physical origin. For example, based on the mechanical origin of acoustic waves, a moving disturbance in space–time can exist if and only if the medium involved is neither infinitely stiff nor infinitely pliable. If all the parts making up a medium were rigidly bound, then they would all vibrate as one, with no delay in the transmission of the vibration and therefore no wave motion. On the other hand, if all the parts were independent, then there would not be any transmission of the vibration and again, no wave motion. Although the above statements are meaningless in the case of waves that do not require a medium, they reveal a characteristic that is relevant to all waves regardless of origin: within a wave, the phase of a vibration (that is, its position within the vibration cycle) is different for adjacent points in space because the vibration reaches these points at different times repeatedly .