The spectral width of the output of most single-mode lasers is determined by technical limitations associated with the stability of the optical length of the laser cavity (see Section 3.3.3). However, in the absence of these, there is a more fundamental limit to the degree of monochromaticity that can be achieved. This limit, known as the Schawlow–Townes limit is, in fact, rather narrower than the passive bandwidth of the laser cavity or the width of the gain curve of the active medium it contains. We calculate in a heuristic fashion in this complement the Schawlow–Townes limit for a laser operating far above threshold.
The fundamental mechanism for the spectral broadening of a laser output beam is the spontaneous emission by the gain medium of photons into the laser mode. Spontaneous emission adds to the complex field of the laser mode εL a fluctuating field, εsp corresponding to the addition of a single photon with a random phase. The total field therefore undergoes amplitude and phase fluctuations. The fluctuations of the amplitude are damped by the gain saturation of the amplifying medium and only the phase fluctuations persist, because the mechanism responsible for laser oscillation does not impose any phase to the generated field. Thus, in the course of successive spontaneous emission events, the phase of the laser field undergoes a random walk. After a time τc (the field correlation time) the phase of the laser field can no longer be predicted; it has lost all memory of its initial value.