Different from elastic waves in linear periodic structures, those in phononic crystals (PCs) with nonlinear properties can exhibit more interesting phenomena. Linear dispersion relations cannot accurately predict band-gap variations under finite-amplitude wave motions; creating nonlinear PCs remains challenging and few examples have been studied. Recent studies in the literature mainly focus on discrete chain-like systems; most studies only consider weakly nonlinear regimes and cannot accurately obtain some relations between wave propagation characteristics and general nonlinearities. This paper presents propagation characteristics of longitudinal elastic waves in a thin rod and coupled longitudinal and transverse waves in an Euler–Bernoulli beam using their exact Green–Lagrange strain relations. We derive band structure relations for a periodic rod and beam and predict their nonlinear wave propagation characteristics using the B-spline wavelet on the interval (BSWI) finite element method. Influences of nonlinearities on wave propagation characteristics are discussed. Numerical examples show that the proposed method is more effective for nonlinear static and band structure problems than the traditional finite element method and illustrate that nonlinearities can cause band-gap width and location changes, which is similar to results reported in the literature for discrete systems. The proposed methodology is not restricted to weakly nonlinear systems and can be used to accurately predict wave propagation characteristics of nonlinear structures. This study can provide good support for engineering applications, such as sound and vibration control using tunable band gaps of nonlinear PCs.

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