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For the histograms used in digital image processing, see control.[5]
Image histogram and Color histogram.
Histograms are often confused with bar charts. A histogram is used for continuous data, where the bins repA histogram is a graphical representation of the resent ranges of data, and the areas of the rectangles are
distribution of numerical data. It is an estimate of the meaningful, while a bar chart is a plot of categorical variprobability distribution of a continuous variable (quan- ables and the discontinuity should be indicated by having
titative variable) and was first introduced by Karl Pear- gaps between the rectangles, from which only the length
son.[1] To construct a histogram, the first step is to "bin" is meaningful. Often this is neglected, which may lead to
the range of values—that is, divide the entire range of val- a bar chart being confused for a histogram.
ues into a series of intervals—and then count how many
values fall into each interval. The bins are usually specified as consecutive, non-overlapping intervals of a vari1 Etymology
able. The bins (intervals) must be adjacent, and are usually equal size.[2]
If the bins are of equal size, a rectangle is erected over the
bin with height proportional to the frequency, the number
of cases in each bin. In general, however, bins need not
be of equal width; in that case, the erected rectangle has
area proportional to the frequency of cases in the bin[3]
The vertical axis is not frequency but density: the number
of cases per unit of the variable on the horizontal axis.
A histogram may also be normalized displaying relative
frequencies. It then shows the proportion of cases that
fall into each of several categories, with the sum of the
heights equaling 1. Examples of variable bin width are
displayed on Census bureau data below.





Heights of Black Cherry Trees


As the adjacent bins leave no gaps, the rectangles of a
histogram touch each other to indicate that the original
variable is continuous.[4]

60 65 70 75 80 85 90
Histograms give a rough sense of the density of the unHeight (feet)
derlying distribution of the data, and often for density estimation: estimating the probability density function of
the underlying variable. The total area of a histogram An example histogram of the heights of 31 Black Cherry trees.
used for probability density is always normalized to 1. If
the length of the intervals on the x-axis are all 1, then a The etymology of the word histogram is uncertain. Sometimes it is said to be derived from the Ancient Greek
histogram is identical to a relative frequency plot.
ἱστός (histos) – “anything set upright” (as the masts of
A histogram can be thought of as a simplistic kernel den- a ship, the bar of a loom, or the vertical bars of a
sity estimation, which uses a kernel to smooth frequencies histogram); and γράμμα (gramma) – “drawing, record,
over the bins. This yields a smoother probability den- writing”. It is also said that Karl Pearson, who introsity function, which will in general more accurately reflect duced the term in 1891, derived the name from “historical
distribution of the underlying variable. The density esti- diagram”.[6]
mate could be plotted as an alternative to the histogram,
and is usually drawn as a curve rather than a set of boxes.

Another alternative is the average shifted histogram,
which is fast to compute and gives a smooth curve estimate of the density without using kernels.

2 Examples
This is a toy example:

The histogram is one of the seven basic tools of quality

The words used to describe the patterns in a histogram


their data on the time occupied by travel to work, the table below shows the absolute number of people who responded with travel times “at least 30 but less than 35
minutes” is higher than the numbers for the categories
above and below it. This is likely due to people rounding their reported journey time. The problem of reporting values as somewhat arbitrarily rounded numbers is a
common phenomenon when collecting data from people.

are: “symmetric”, “skewed left” or “right”, “unimodal”,
“bimodal” or “multimodal”.

Histogram of travel time (to work), US 2000 census. Area under
the curve equals the total number of cases. This diagram uses
Q/width from the table.

• Symmetric, unimodal
• Skewed right
• Skewed left
• Bimodal
• Multimodal

This histogram shows the number of cases per unit interval as the height of each block, so that the area of each
block is equal to the number of people in the survey who
fall into its category. The area under the curve represents
the total number of cases (124 million). This type of histogram shows absolute numbers, with Q in thousands.

• Symmetric
It is a good idea to plot the data using several different bin
widths to learn more about it. Here is an example on tips
given in a restaurant.
• Tips using a $1 bin width, skewed right, unimodal
• Tips using a 10c bin width, still skewed right, multimodal with modes at $ and 50c amounts, indicates
rounding, also some outliers
Here are a couple more examples:
• Prices of houses sold in Ames in 2009 exhibits some
right skew

Histogram of travel time (to work), US 2000 census. Area under
the curve equals 1. This diagram uses Q/total/width from the

• Aces by players in a grand slam tennis tournament,
facetted by gender. There are more aces in the mens
This histogram differs from the first only in the vertical
scale. The area of each block is the fraction of the total
The U.S. Census Bureau found that there were 124 mil- that each category represents, and the total area of all the
lion people who work outside of their homes.[7] Using bars is equal to 1 (the fraction meaning “all”). The curve


Number of bins and width


displayed is a simple density estimate. This version shows 3.2 Number of bins and width
proportions, and is also known as a unit area histogram.
There is no “best” number of bins, and different bin sizes
In other words, a histogram represents a frequency discan reveal different features of the data. Grouping data is
tribution by means of rectangles whose widths represent
at least as old as Graunt's work in the 17th century, but no
class intervals and whose areas are proportional to the
systematic guidelines were given[9] until Sturges's work in
corresponding frequencies: the height of each is the av1926.[10]
erage frequency density for the interval. The intervals
are placed together in order to show that the data repre- Using wider bins where the density is low reduces noise
sented by the histogram, while exclusive, is also contigu- due to sampling randomness; using narrower bins where
ous. (E.g., in a histogram it is possible to have two con- the density is high (so the signal drowns the noise) gives
necting intervals of 10.5–20.5 and 20.5–33.5, but not two greater precision to the density estimation. Thus varyconnecting intervals of 10.5–20.5 and 22.5–32.5. Empty ing the bin-width within a histogram can be beneficial.
Nonetheless, equal-width bins are widely used.
intervals are represented as empty and not skipped.)[8]


Mathematical definition

Some theoreticians have attempted to determine an optimal number of bins, but these methods generally make
strong assumptions about the shape of the distribution.
Depending on the actual data distribution and the goals
of the analysis, different bin widths may be appropriate, so experimentation is usually needed to determine
an appropriate width. There are, however, various useful
guidelines and rules of thumb.[11]
The number of bins k can be assigned directly or can be
calculated from a suggested bin width h as:


An ordinary and a cumulative histogram of the same data. The
data shown is a random sample of 10,000 points from a normal
distribution with a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1.

In a more general mathematical sense, a histogram is a
function mi that counts the number of observations that
fall into each of the disjoint categories (known as bins),
whereas the graph of a histogram is merely one way to
represent a histogram. Thus, if we let n be the total number of observations and k be the total number of bins, the
histogram mi meets the following conditions:



max x − min x

The braces indicate the ceiling function.
Square-root choice


which takes the square root of the number of data points
in the sample (used by Excel histograms and many
Sturges’ formula
Sturges’ formula[10] is derived from a binomial distribution and implicitly assumes an approximately normal distribution.

mi .


k = ⌈log2 n + 1⌉,
It implicitly bases the bin sizes on the range of the data
and can perform poorly if n < 30, because the number of
bins will be small—less than seven—and unlikely to show
A cumulative histogram is a mapping that counts the cu- trends in the data well. It may also perform poorly if the
mulative number of observations in all of the bins up to data are not normally distributed.
the specified bin. That is, the cumulative histogram Mi
of a histogram mj is defined as:
Rice Rule


Mi =

Cumulative histogram



k = ⌈2n1/3 ⌉,
mj .

The Rice Rule [13] is presented as a simple alternative to
Sturges’s rule.



Doane’s formula



Doane’s formula[14] is a modification of Sturges’ formula A good reason why the number of bins should be prowhich attempts to improve its performance with non- portional to n1/3 is the following: suppose that the data
are obtained as n independent realizations of a bounded
normal data.
probability distribution with smooth density. Then the
histogram remains equally »rugged« as n tends to infinity.
|g1 |
If s is the »width« of the distribution (e. g., the standard
k = 1 + log2 (n) + log2 1 +
deviation or the inter-quartile range), then the number of
units in a bin (the frequency) is of√order nh/s and the
where g1 is the estimated 3rd-moment-skewness of the relative standard error is of order s/(nh) . Compardistribution and
ing to the next bin, the relative change of the frequency
is of order h/s provided that the derivative of the density
is non-zero. These two are of the same order if h is of

order s/n1/3 , so that k is of order n1/3 .
6(n − 2)
σg1 =
(n + 1)(n + 3)
This simple cubic root choice can also be applied to bins
with non-constant width.
Scott’s normal reference rule
where σ
ˆ is the sample standard deviation. Scott’s normal
reference rule[15] is optimal for random samples of normally distributed data, in the sense that it minimizes the
integrated mean squared error of the density estimate.[9]

This approach of minimizing integrated mean squared error can be generalized beyond Normal distributions:[16]

4 See also
• Data binning
• Density estimation
• Kernel density estimation, a smoother but
more complex method of density estimation
• Entropy estimation

arg minJ(h)
= arg min


n+1 ∑ 2
− 2
(n − 1)h n (n − 1)h

Here, Nk is the number of datapoints in the kth bin, and
choosing the value of h that minimizes J will minimize
integrated mean squared error.

• Freedman–Diaconis rule
• Image histogram
• Pareto chart
• Seven Basic Tools of Quality
• V-optimal histograms

Freedman–Diaconis’ choice
The Freedman–Diaconis rule is:[17][9]
h = 2 1/3 ,
which is based on the interquartile range, denoted by
IQR. It replaces 3.5σ of Scott’s rule with 2 IQR, which
is less sensitive than the standard deviation to outliers in

5 References
[1] Pearson, K. (1895). “Contributions to the Mathematical Theory of Evolution. II. Skew Variation in Homogeneous Material”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal
Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 186: 343–414. Bibcode:1895RSPTA.186..343P.
[2] Howitt, D. and Cramer, D. (2008) Statistics in Psychology.
Prentice Hall

Choice based on minimization of an estimated L2[18]
risk function

[3] Freedman, D. Pisani, R. and Purves, R. 1998. Statistics
(Third edition). W.W.Norton

¯ −v
arg min

[4] Charles Stangor (2011) “Research Methods For The Behavioral Sciences”. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. ISBN

where m
¯ and v are mean and biased∑variance of a hisk
togram with bin-width h , m
¯ = k1 i=1 mi and v =

¯ 2.
i=1 (mi − m)

[5] Nancy R. Tague (2004). “Seven Basic Quality Tools”.
The Quality Toolbox. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: American
Society for Quality. p. 15. Retrieved 2010-02-05.


[6] M. Eileen Magnello (December 2006). “Karl Pearson and
the Origins of Modern Statistics: An Elastician becomes
a Statistician”. The New Zealand Journal for the History
and Philosophy of Science and Technology. 1 volume.
OCLC 682200824.
[7] US 2000 census.
[8] Dean, S., & Illowsky, B. (2009, February 19). Descriptive Statistics: Histogram. Retrieved from the Connexions
Web site:
[9] Scott, David W. (1992). Multivariate Density Estimation:
Theory, Practice, and Visualization. New York: John Wiley.
[10] Sturges, H. A. (1926). “The choice of a class interval”. Journal of the American Statistical Association:
65–66. doi:10.1080/01621459.1926.10502161. JSTOR
[11] e.g. § 5.6 “Density Estimation”, W. N. Venables and B. D.
Ripley, Modern Applied Statistics with S (2002), Springer,
4th edition. ISBN 0-387-95457-0.
[12] EXCEL 2007: Histogram
[13] Online Statistics Education: A Multimedia Course of
Study (
Project Leader:
David M. Lane, Rice University (chapter 2 “Graphing
Distributions”, section “Histograms”)
[14] Doane DP (1976) Aesthetic frequency classification.
American Statistician, 30: 181–183
[15] Scott, David W. (1979).
“On optimal and databased histograms”.
Biometrika 66 (3): 605–610.
[17] Freedman, David; Diaconis, P. (1981). “On the histogram as a density estimator: L2 theory”. Zeitschrift für
Wahrscheinlichkeitstheorie und verwandte Gebiete 57 (4):
453–476. doi:10.1007/BF01025868.
[18] Shimazaki, H.; Shinomoto, S. (2007).
method for selecting the bin size of a time histogram”. Neural Computation 19 (6): 1503–1527.
doi:10.1162/neco.2007.19.6.1503. PMID 17444758.


Further reading
• Lancaster, H.O. An Introduction to Medical Statistics. John Wiley and Sons. 1974. ISBN 0-47151250-8


External links
• Journey To Work and Place Of Work (location of
census document cited in example)

• Smooth histogram for signals and images from a few
• Histograms: Construction, Analysis and Understanding with external links and an application to
particle Physics.
• A Method for Selecting the Bin Size of a Histogram
• Histograms: Theory and Practice, some great illustrations of some of the Bin Width concepts derived
• Histograms the Right Way
• Interactive histogram generator
• Matlab function to plot nice histograms
• Dynamic Histogram in MS Excel
• Histogram construction and manipulation using Java
applets, and charts on SOCR




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