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A wavelet is a wavelike oscillation with an amplitude that starts out at zero, increases, and then decreases back to zero. It can typically be visualized as a "brief oscillation" like one might see recorded by a seismograph or heart monitor. Generally, wavelets are purposefully crafted to have specific properties that make them useful for signal processing. Wavelets can be combined, using a "shift, multiply and sum" technique called convolution, with portions of an unknown signal to extract information from the unknown signal.
For example, a wavelet could be created to have a frequency of Middle C and a short duration of roughly a 32nd note. If this wavelet were to be convolved at periodic intervals with a signal created from the recording of a song, then the results of these convolutions would be useful for determining when the Middle C note was being played in the song. Mathematically, the wavelet will resonate if the unknown signal contains information of similar frequency  just as a tuning fork physically resonates with sound waves of its specific tuning frequency. This concept of resonance is at the core of many practical applications of wavelet theory.
As wavelets are a mathematical tool they can be used to extract information from many different kinds of data, including  but certainly not limited to  audio signals and images. Sets of wavelets are generally needed to analyze data fully. A set of "complementary" wavelets will deconstruct data without gaps or overlap so that the deconstruction process is mathematically reversible. Thus, sets of complementary wavelets are useful in wavelet based compression/decompression algorithms where it is desirable to recover the original information with minimal loss.
In formal terms, this representation is a wavelet series representation of a squareintegrable function with respect to either a complete, orthonormal set of basis functions, or an overcomplete set or Frame of a vector space, for the Hilbert space of square integrable functions.
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