Oscillation is the repetitive variation, typically in time, of some measure about a central value (often a point of equilibrium) or between two or more different states. Familiar examples include a swinging pendulum and AC power. The term vibration is sometimes used more narrowly to mean a mechanical oscillation but sometimes is used to be synonymous with "oscillation." Oscillations occur not only in physical systems but also in biological systems and in human society.
The simplest mechanical oscillating system is a mass attached to a linear spring subject to no other forces. Such a system may be approximated on an air table or ice surface. The system is in an equilibrium state when the spring is static. If the system is displaced from the equilibrium, there is a net restoring force on the mass, tending to bring it back to equilibrium. However, in moving the mass back to the equilibrium position, it has acquired momentum which keeps it moving beyond that position, establishing a new restoring force in the opposite sense. If a constant force such as gravity is added to the system, the point of equilibrium is shifted. The time taken for an oscillation to occur is often referred to as the oscillatory period. The specific dynamics of this spring-mass system are described mathematically by the simple harmonic oscillator and the regular periodic motion is known as simple harmonic motion. In the spring-mass system, oscillations occur because, at the static equilibrium displacement, the mass has kinetic energy which is converted into potential energy stored in the spring at the extremes of its path. The spring-mass system illustrates some common features of oscillation, namely the existence of an equilibrium and the presence of a restoring force which grows stronger the further the system deviates from equilibrium. The harmonic oscillator offers a model of many more complicated types of oscillation and can be extended by the use of Fourier analysis. In real-world systems, the second law of thermodynamics dictates that there is some continual and inevitable conversion of energy into the thermal energy of the environment. Thus, oscillations tend to decay (become "damped") with time unless there is some net source of energy into the system. The simplest description of this decay process can be illustrated by oscillation decay of the harmonic oscillator.In addition, an oscillating system may be subject to some external force (often sinusoidal), as when an AC circuit is connected to an outside power source. In this case the oscillation is said to be driven. Some systems can be excited by energy transfer from the environment. This transfer typically occurs where systems are embedded in some fluid flow. For example, the phenomenon of flutter in aerodynamics occurs when an arbitrarily small displacement of an aircraft wing (from its equilibrium) results in an increase in the angle of attack of the wing on the air flow and a consequential increase in lift coefficient, leading to a still greater displacement. At sufficiently large displacements, the stiffness of the wing dominates to provide the restoring force that enables an oscillation.