A spectrum (plural spectra or spectrums) is a condition that is not limited to a specific set of values but can vary, without steps, across a continuum. The word was first used scientifically in optics to describe the rainbow of colors in visible light after passing through a prism. As scientific understanding of light advanced, it came to apply to the entire electromagnetic spectrum.
Spectrum has since been applied by analogy to topics outside optics. Thus, one might talk about the "spectrum of political opinion", or the "spectrum of activity" of a drug, or the "autism spectrum". In these uses, values within a spectrum may not be associated with precisely quantifiable numbers or definitions. Such uses imply a broad range of conditions or behaviors grouped together and studied under a single title for ease of discussion. Nonscientific uses of the term spectrum are sometimes misleading. For instance, a single left–right spectrum of political opinion does not capture the full range of people's political beliefs. Political scientists use a variety of biaxial and multiaxial systems to more accurately characterize political opinion.
In most modern usages of spectrum there is a unifying theme between the extremes at either end. This was not always true in older usage.
In acoustics, a spectrogram is a visual representation of the frequency spectrum of sound as a function of time or another variable.
A source of sound can have many different frequencies mixed. A Musical tone's timbre is characterized by its harmonic spectrum. Sound in our environment that we refer to as noise includes many different frequencies. When a sound signal contains a mixture of all audible frequencies, distributed equally over the audio spectrum, it is called white noise.
The spectrum analyzer is an instrument which can be used to convert the sound wave of the musical note into a visual display of the constituent frequencies. This visual display is referred to as an acoustic spectrogram. Software based audio spectrum analyzers are available at low cost, providing easy access not only to industry professionals, but also to academics, students and the hobbyist. The acoustic spectrogram generated by the spectrum analyzer provides an acoustic signature of the musical note. In addition to revealing the fundamental frequency and its overtones, the spectrogram is also useful for analysis of the temporal attack, decay, sustain, and release of the musical note.