Legendre polynomials

The six first Legendre polynomials.

In physical science and mathematics, Legendre polynomials (named after Adrien-Marie Legendre, who discovered them in 1782) are a system of complete and orthogonal polynomials, with a vast number of mathematically beautiful properties, and innumerable applications. They can be defined in many ways, and the various definitions highlight different aspects as well as suggest generalizations and connections to different mathematical structures and physical and numerical applications.

Closely related to the Legendre polynomials are Associated Legendre polynomials, Legendre functions of the second kind , discussed below, and associated Legendre functions. For each of these see the separate Wikipedia articles.


Definition by Construction as an Orthogonal SystemEdit

In this approach, the polynomials are defined as an orthogonal system with respect to the function   over the interval  , i.e.,   is a polynomial of degree  , such that


This determines the polynomials completely up to an overall scale factor, which is fixed by the standardization  . That this is a constructive definition is seen thus:   is the only correctly standardized polynomial of degree 0.   must be orthogonal to  , leading to  ,   is determined by demanding orthogonality to   and  , and so on.   is fixed by demanding orthogonality to all   with  . This gives   conditions, which, along with the standardization   fixes all   coefficients in  . With work, all the coefficients of every polynomial can be systematically determined, leading to the explicit representation in powers of   given below.

This definition of the  's is the simplest one. It does not appeal to the theory of differential equations. Second, the completeness of the polynomials follows immediately from the completeness of the powers 1,  . Finally, by defining them via orthogonality with respect to the most obvious weight function on a finite interval, it sets up the Legendre polynomials as one of the three classical orthogonal polynomial systems. The other two are the Laguerre polynomials, which are orthogonal over the half line  , and the Hermite polynomials, orthogonal over the full line  , with weight functions that are the most natural analytic functions that ensure convergence of all integrals.

Definition via Generating FunctionEdit

The Legendre polynomials can also be defined as the coefficients in a formal expansion in powers of   of the generating function[1]







The coefficient of   is a polynomial in   of degree  . Expanding up to   gives


Expansion to higher orders gets increasingly cumbersome, but is possible to do systematically, and again leads to one of the explicit forms given below.

It is possible to obtain the higher  's without resorting to direct expansion of the Taylor series, however. Eq. 2 is differentiated with respect to t on both sides and rearranged to obtain


Replacing the quotient of the square root with its definition in Eq. 2, and equating the coefficients of powers of t in the resulting expansion gives Bonnet’s recursion formula


This relation, along with the first two polynomials P0 and P1, allows all the rest to be generated recursively.

The generating function approach is directly connected to the multipole expansion in electrostatics, as explained below, and is how the polynomials were first defined by Legendre in 1782.

Definition via Differential EquationEdit

A third definition is in terms of solutions to Legendre's differential equation







This differential equation has regular singular points at x = ±1 so if a solution is sought using the standard Frobenius or power series method, a series about the origin will only converge for |x| < 1 in general. When n is an integer, the solution Pn(x) that is regular at x = 1 is also regular at x = −1, and the series for this solution terminates (i.e. it is a polynomial). The orthogonality and completeness of these solutions is best seen from the viewpoint of Sturm–Liouville theory. We rewrite the differential equation as an eigenvalue problem,


with the eigenvalue   in lieu of  . If we demand that the solution be regular at  , the differential operator on the left is Hermitean. The eigenvalues are found to be of the form n(n + 1), with  , and the eigenfunctions are the  . The orthogonality and completeness of this set of solutions follows at once from the larger framework of Sturm-Liouville theory.

The differential equation admits another, non-polynomial solution, the Legendre functions of the second kind  , discussed below. A two-parameter generalization of (Eq. 1) is called Legendre's general differential equation, solved by the Associated Legendre polynomials. Legendre functions are solutions of Legendre's differential equation (generalized or not) with non-integer parameters.

In physical settings, Legendre's differential equation arises naturally whenever one solves Laplace's equation (and related partial differential equations) by separation of variables in spherical coordinates. From this standpoint, the eigenfunctions of the angular part of the Laplacian operator are the spherical harmonics, of which the Legendre polynomials are (up to a multiplicative constant) the subset that is left invariant by rotations about the polar axis. The polynomials appear as   where   is the polar angle. This approach to the Legendre polynomials provides a deep connection to rotational symmetry. Many of their properties which are found laboriously through the methods of analysis --- for example the addition theorem --- are more easily found using the methods of symmetry and group theory, and acquire profound physical and geometrical meaning.

Orthonormality and CompletenessEdit

The standardization   fixes the normalization of the Legendre polynomials (with respect to the L2 norm on the interval −1 ≤ x ≤ 1). Since they are also orthogonal with respect to the same norm, the two statements can be combined into the single equation,


(where δmn denotes the Kronecker delta, equal to 1 if m = n and to 0 otherwise). This normalization is most readily found by employing Rodrigues' formula, given below.

That the polynomials are complete means the following. Given any piecewise continuous function   with finitely many discontinuities in the interval [-1,1], the sequence of sums


converges in the mean to   as  , provided we take


This completeness property underlies all the expansions discussed in this article, and is often stated in the form


with −1 ≤ x ≤ 1 and −1 ≤ y ≤ 1.

Rodrigues' formula and other explicit formulasEdit

An especially compact expression for the Legendre polynomials is given by Rodrigues' formula:


This formula enables derivation of a large number of properties of the  's. Among these are explicit representations such as


where the last, which is also immediate from the recursion formula, expresses the Legendre polynomials by simple monomials and involves the multiplicative formula of the binomial coefficient.

The first few Legendre polynomials are:


The graphs of these polynomials (up to n = 5) are shown below:

Applications of Legendre polynomialsEdit

Expanding a 1/r potentialEdit

The Legendre polynomials were first introduced in 1782 by Adrien-Marie Legendre[2] as the coefficients in the expansion of the Newtonian potential


where r and r are the lengths of the vectors x and x respectively and γ is the angle between those two vectors. The series converges when r > r. The expression gives the gravitational potential associated to a point mass or the Coulomb potential associated to a point charge. The expansion using Legendre polynomials might be useful, for instance, when integrating this expression over a continuous mass or charge distribution.

Legendre polynomials occur in the solution of Laplace's equation of the static potential, 2 Φ(x) = 0, in a charge-free region of space, using the method of separation of variables, where the boundary conditions have axial symmetry (no dependence on an azimuthal angle). Where is the axis of symmetry and θ is the angle between the position of the observer and the axis (the zenith angle), the solution for the potential will be


Al and Bl are to be determined according to the boundary condition of each problem.[3]

They also appear when solving the Schrödinger equation in three dimensions for a central force.

Legendre polynomials in multipole expansionsEdit

Legendre polynomials are also useful in expanding functions of the form (this is the same as before, written a little differently):


which arise naturally in multipole expansions. The left-hand side of the equation is the generating function for the Legendre polynomials.

As an example, the electric potential Φ(r,θ) (in spherical coordinates) due to a point charge located on the z-axis at z = a (see diagram right) varies as


If the radius r of the observation point P is greater than a, the potential may be expanded in the Legendre polynomials


where we have defined η = a/r < 1 and x = cos θ. This expansion is used to develop the normal multipole expansion.

Conversely, if the radius r of the observation point P is smaller than a, the potential may still be expanded in the Legendre polynomials as above, but with a and r exchanged. This expansion is the basis of interior multipole expansion.

Legendre polynomials in trigonometryEdit

The trigonometric functions cos , also denoted as the Chebyshev polynomials Tn(cos θ) ≡ cos , can also be multipole expanded by the Legendre polynomials Pn(cos θ). The first several orders are as follows:


Another property is the expression for sin (n + 1)θ, which is


Additional properties of Legendre polynomialsEdit

Legendre polynomials have definite parity. That is, they are symmetric or antisymmetric,[4] according to


Another useful property is

  for  ,

which follows from considering the orthogonality relation with  . It is convenient when a Legendre series   is used to approximate a function or experimental data: the average of the series over the interval [-1, 1] is simply given by the leading expansion coefficient  .

Since the differential equation and the orthogonality property are independent of scaling, the Legendre polynomials' definitions are "standardized" (sometimes called "normalization", but note that the actual norm is not 1) by being scaled so that


The derivative at the end point is given by


The Askey–Gasper inequality for Legendre polynomials reads


The Legendre polynomials of a scalar product of unit vectors can be expanded with spherical harmonics using


where the unit vectors r and r have spherical coordinates (θ,φ) and (θ′,φ′), respectively.

Recursion relationsEdit

As discussed above, the Legendre polynomials obey the three-term recurrence relation known as Bonnet’s recursion formula




Useful for the integration of Legendre polynomials is


From the above one can see also that


or equivalently


where ||Pn|| is the norm over the interval −1 ≤ x ≤ 1



Asymptotically for l → ∞[5]


and for arguments of magnitude greater than 1


where J0 and I0 are Bessel functions.


All   zeros of   are real, distinct from each other, and lie in the interval  . Further, if we regard them as dividing the interval   into   subintervals, each subinterval will contain exactly one zero of  . This is known as the interlacing property. Because of the parity property it is evident that if   is a zero of  , so is  . These zeros play an important role in numerical integration based on Gaussian quadrature. The specific quadrature based on the  's is known as Gauss-Legendre quadrature.

Legendre polynomials with transformed argumentEdit

Shifted Legendre polynomialsEdit

The shifted Legendre polynomials are defined as


Here the "shifting" function x ↦ 2x − 1 is an affine transformation that bijectively maps the interval [0,1] to the interval [−1,1], implying that the polynomials n(x) are orthogonal on [0,1]:


An explicit expression for the shifted Legendre polynomials is given by


The analogue of Rodrigues' formula for the shifted Legendre polynomials is


The first few shifted Legendre polynomials are:


Legendre rational functionsEdit

The Legendre rational functions are a sequence of orthogonal functions on [0, ∞). They are obtained by composing the Cayley transform with Legendre polynomials.

A rational Legendre function of degree n is defined as:


They are eigenfunctions of the singular Sturm-Liouville problem:


with eigenvalues


Legendre functions of the second kind (Qn)Edit

As well as polynomial solutions, the Legendre equation has non-polynomial solutions represented by infinite series. These are the Legendre functions of the second kind, denoted by Qn(x).


The differential equation


has the general solution


where A and B are constants.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Arfken & Weber 2005, p.743
  2. ^ Legendre, A.-M. (1785) [1782]. "Recherches sur l'attraction des sphéroïdes homogènes". Mémoires de Mathématiques et de Physique, présentés à l'Académie Royale des Sciences, par divers savans, et lus dans ses Assemblées (PDF) (in French). X. Paris. pp. 411–435. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-09-20.
  3. ^ Jackson, J. D. (1999). Classical Electrodynamics (3rd ed.). Wiley & Sons. p. 103. ISBN 978-0-471-30932-1.
  4. ^ Arfken & Weber 2005, p.753
  5. ^ 1895-1985., Szegő, Gábor, (1975). Orthogonal polynomials (4th ed.). Providence: American Mathematical Society. pp. 194 (Theorem 8.21.2). ISBN 0821810235. OCLC 1683237.


External linksEdit