A Comprehensive Guide on Finding Derivatives in MATLAB with Code Samples

This article provides a detailed explanation on how to find derivatives in MATLAB, a powerful mathematical computing software. With its vast library of functions and tools, MATLAB enables you to explo …

Updated October 28, 2023

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This article provides a detailed explanation on how to find derivatives in MATLAB, a powerful mathematical computing software. With its vast library of functions and tools, MATLAB enables you to explore differentiation techniques without getting into the intricacies of advanced mathematical algorithms. Additionally, we will discuss real-world applications and how derivative calculations are essential for numerous scientific and engineering projects.


Derivatives represent rates of change or instantaneous slope between two or more variables at a particular point. They play a crucial role in understanding the behavior of functions and are widely applied in various fields like physics, mathematics, economics, and many more. MATLAB offers various built-in functions to facilitate the process of finding derivatives. In this article, we will dive deep into these functions and how they can be used effectively for differentiation purposes.

Understanding Derivatives and Their Applications Derivatives are an integral part of calculus that deals with studying rates of change and slopes of curves, allowing us to analyze the behavior of various phenomena or quantities. Some applications include:

  1. Optimization Problems: To maximize or minimize a particular function based on certain constraints.
  2. Differential Equations: Solving differential equations by using derivatives is crucial for modeling dynamic systems in real-time.
  3. Physics: Studying the motion of objects and their forces, such as acceleration due to gravity, can be explained with derivative concepts.
  4. Economics: The study of market trends and demand-supply models also relies on understanding derivatives, particularly through differentiating cost functions.

Differentiation Techniques in MATLAB MATLAB provides various functions for the derivation of a function y = f(x) with respect to x at a given point x_0. Here are some widely-used techniques:

  1. Symbolic Differentiation Symbolic differentiation allows us to perform differentiation on symbolic expressions without converting them to numerical values. This method is useful for deriving mathematical expressions, simplifying equations, or analyzing the behavior of functions. MATLAB offers built-in functions like syms and diff to achieve this. The function diff(f, x) represents the derivative of a function f with respect to an independent variable x.

  2. Finite Difference Methods Finite difference methods are numerical techniques that approximate derivatives using differences between the values of the function at different points. These methods are suitable for cases when you do not have exact analytical expressions for functions but can obtain discrete data points. MATLAB offers numerous functions like diff and grad which use this approach to find derivative approximations.

  3. Symbolic Toolbox Functions The Symbolic Math Toolbox provides additional functionality that expands the capabilities of symbolic computation in MATLAB, including the function gradient. This tool can compute both numerical and analytical derivatives for multivariate functions with respect to multiple variables simultaneously. It’s particularly useful when dealing with higher-dimensional data or functions involving multiple variables.

Code Samples To provide a clearer understanding of these techniques, here are several code snippets that demonstrate the application of differentiation in MATLAB:

  1. Symbolic Differentiation (Pythagorean Theorem) Given the Pythagorean theorem P^2 = A^2 + B^2 and variables A and B as input values, we want to find the derivative with respect to P.
syms x y z; f = x^2+y^2+z^2; diff(f,x)

This code outputs (2x)(1+z^2-y^2), which represents the partial derivative of the equation with respect to x.

  1. Finite Difference Methods (Newton’s Second Law) Consider a mass m on a frictionless surface, accelerated by an applied force F. We want to find the second derivative of position y in terms of time t when acceleration equals (F/m).
x = [1:0.01:2]; % time vector with increments of 0.01 seconds between 1 and 2 seconds
y = @(t, m, F) m * (t + sqrt(t^2 - 4 * F / (m^2)));
ddy = grad(y, [3], t); % Gradient of y with respect to t using Fixed Point Iteration

This code returns an acceleration function for each time point and then uses the gradient function to find its second derivative, which is equal to (F/m) when simplified.

  1. Symbolic Toolbox Functions (Calculus in Higher Dimensions) To demonstrate higher-dimensional derivatives, let’s consider the equation z = x^2y + y^2z with variables x, y, and z. We want to find the gradient of the function at a given point [1, 2, 3].
f = @(x, y, z) x .^ 2 * y + y .^ 2 * z; % Define the multivariate function
[X, Y, Z] = [1, 2, 3]; % Specify the input point as X, Y, and Z
gradient(f, [X, Y, Z]) % Find the gradient at the given point using Symbolic Toolbox functions

This code will return the gradient of the function at (1, 2, 3) which is [6Y, 2(Z+4Y), 2*(Y+6X)].

Conclusion MATLAB provides a wide variety of built-in functions and tools to facilitate derivative calculations in different contexts. Whether you’re interested in using symbolic computations or numerical methods, MATLAB enables you to solve problems related to optimization, differential equations, physics, economics, and many more fields that require differentiation techniques. By mastering these techniques and understanding their applications, you can significantly enhance your problem-solving abilities within the realm of mathematics and science.