Undetermined coefficients, method of

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The determination of an unknown function in the form of an exact or approximate linear combination (finite or infinite) of known functions. This linear combination is taken with unknown coefficients, which are determined in one way or another from the conditions of the problem in question. As a rule, one obtains a system of algebraic equations for them.

A classic example of the method of undetermined coefficients is its use in the expansion of a regular rational function in a complex or real domain in elementary fractions. Let and be algebraic polynomials with complex coefficients, where the degree of is less than the degree of and the coefficient of the highest term of is 1, let be a root of of multiplicity , , , so that

The regular rational function can be represented uniquely in the form


where the are yet unknown complex numbers (altogether ). To find them, both parts of the equality are brought to a common denominator. After this, by disregarding inessential terms and reduction of similar terms on the right-hand side one obtains an equality on each side of which there stand polynomials of degree at most ; on the left-hand side with known coefficients, on the right-hand side in the form of linear combinations of the unknown numbers . By equating coefficients at equal powers of , one obtains a system of linear equations in the which, owing to the existence and uniqueness of the expansion (1), has a unique solution. Occasionally it is convenient to use a somewhat different device for finding the coefficients . For example, suppose that all roots of are simple, so that (1) takes the form

After bringing the two sides to a common denominator and reduction of similar terms, one obtains the equality

When one sets in it in succession , , one readily obtains

In the general case it is useful to combine these two devices for finding the coefficients .

Let and be polynomials with real coefficients,

where are the real roots of of multiplicities , and the quadratic trinomial with real coefficients and is the product , where is a complex root of multiplicity , , of and

Then for the regular rational function there is one and only one expansion of the form


where the coefficients , , , and , , , are real numbers. The method for finding them is the same as in the complex case described above: the equality (2) is brought to a common denominator, inessential terms are disregarded, and after collecting similar terms the coefficients at equal powers of on both sides are equated. As a result one obtains a system of equations in the unknowns , which has a unique solution.

The expansion of regular rational functions into elementary ones is applied, for example, to find their Laurent series (in particular, their Taylor series), and to integrate them. The method of undetermined coefficients is also used to integrate rational functions by means of the Ostrogradski method, and to integrate functions of the form . In this case the integral becomes


where the degree of the polynomial is one less than that of . To find the coefficients of and the number one differentiates (3). Then one brings both sides to a common denominator, disregards inessential terms, collects similar terms, and equates coefficients at equal powers of . As a result one obtains again a system of linear equations with a unique solution. Similar methods of integration can be applied in certain other cases.

The method of undetermined coefficients is applied in finding solutions of (ordinary and partial) differential equations in the form of power series. For this purpose, in a neighbourhood of the point in question a power series with undetermined coefficients is substituted in the given equation. Sometimes one obtains as a result relations between the coefficients of the series from which by means of given initial or boundary conditions one succeeds in finding these coefficients and, consequently, a solution of the equation in the form of a series. For example, when one solves the hypergeometric equation in this manner, one can obtain an expansion in a series of hypergeometric functions (cf. Hypergeometric function).

The method of undetermined coefficients is also applied in other ways when solving differential equations, for example, the Galerkin method, the Ritz method and the Trefftz method; it is also used in numerical methods: in Krylov's method for obtaining the coefficients of the secular equation, and in the approximate solution of integral equations.


The phrase "method of undetermined coefficients" , or Lagrange's method of undetermined coefficients, is also used to refer to the method of Lagrange multipliers when investigating conditional extrema, cf. e.g. [a3].


[a1] W.I. [V.I. Smirnov] Smirnow, "Lehrgang der höhren Mathematik" , 1 , Deutsch. Verlag Wissenschaft. (1963) pp. 181–377; 397ff (Translated from Russian)
[a2] K. Schröder (ed.) , Mathematik für die Praxis , II , Deutsch. Verlag Wissenschaft. (1966) pp. 49ff
[a3] K. Rektorys (ed.) , Applicable mathematics , Iliffe (1969) pp. 480–481
[a4] D.M. Young, R.T. Gregory, "A survey of numerical mathematics" , 1 , Dover, reprint (1988) pp. 259–261
[a5] M.D. Greenberg, "Foundations of applied mathematics" , Prentice-Hall (1978) pp. 419ff
[a6] P. Henrici, "Applied and computational complex analysis" , 1 , Wiley (1974) pp. 553; 562
[a7] A.I. Markushevich, "Theory of functions of a complex variable" , 1 , Chelsea (1965) pp. 352ff (Translated from Russian)
[a8] D.G. Zill, M.R. Cullen, "Advanced engineering mathematics" , PWS-Kent (1992) pp. 139–157; 658ff
How to Cite This Entry:
Undetermined coefficients, method of. Encyclopedia of Mathematics. URL:,_method_of&oldid=14541
This article was adapted from an original article by L.D. Kudryavtsev (originator), which appeared in Encyclopedia of Mathematics - ISBN 1402006098. See original article