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Legendre polynomials

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Legendre polynomials

In mathematics, Legendre functions are solutions to Legendre's differential equation:

{d \over dx} \left[ (1-x^2) {d \over dx} P_n(x) \right] + n(n+1)P_n(x) = 0.






They are named after Adrien-Marie Legendre. This ordinary differential equation is frequently encountered in physics and other technical fields. In particular, it occurs when solving Laplace's equation (and related partial differential equations) in spherical coordinates.

The Legendre differential equation may be solved using the standard power series method. The equation has regular singular points at x = ±1 so, in general, a series solution about the origin will only converge for |x| < 1. 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).

These solutions for n = 0, 1, 2, ... (with the normalization Pn(1) = 1) form a polynomial sequence of orthogonal polynomials called the Legendre polynomials. Each Legendre polynomial Pn(x) is an nth-degree polynomial. It may be expressed using Rodrigues' formula:

P_n(x) = {1 \over 2^n n!} {d^n \over dx^n } \left[ (x^2 -1)^n \right].

That these polynomials satisfy the Legendre differential equation (1) follows by differentiating n + 1 times both sides of the identity

(x^2-1)\frac{d}{dx}(x^2-1)^n = 2nx(x^2-1)^n

and employing the general Leibniz rule for repeated differentiation.[1] The Pn can also be defined as the coefficients in a Taylor series expansion:[2]

\frac{1}{\sqrt{1-2xt+t^2}} = \sum_{n=0}^\infty P_n(x) t^n.






In physics, this ordinary generating function is the basis for multipole expansions.


  • Recursive definition 1
  • Orthogonality 2
  • Applications of Legendre polynomials in physics 3
  • Additional properties of Legendre polynomials 4
  • Shifted Legendre polynomials 5
  • Legendre functions of the Second Kind (Q_n) 6
  • Legendre functions of fractional order 7
  • See also 8
  • Notes 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11

Recursive definition

Expanding the Taylor series in Equation (2) for the first two terms gives

P_0(x) = 1,\quad P_1(x) = x

for the first two Legendre Polynomials. To obtain further terms without resorting to direct expansion of the Taylor series, equation (2) is differentiated with respect to t on both sides and rearranged to obtain

\frac{x-t}{\sqrt{1-2xt+t^2}} = (1-2xt+t^2) \sum_{n=1}^\infty n P_n(x) t^{n-1}.

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

(n+1) P_{n+1}(x) = (2n+1) x P_n(x) - n P_{n-1}(x).\,

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

Explicit representations include

\begin{align}P_n(x)&= \frac 1 {2^n} \sum_{k=0}^n {n\choose k}^2 (x-1)^{n-k}(x+1)^k \\ &=\sum_{k=0}^n {n\choose k} {-n-1\choose k} \left( \frac{1-x}{2} \right)^k \\&= 2^n\cdot \sum_{k=0}^n x^k {n \choose k}{\frac{n+k-1}2\choose n},\end{align}

where the latter, which is 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:
n P_n(x)\,
0 1\,
1 x\,
2 \begin{matrix}\frac12\end{matrix} (3x^2-1) \,
3 \begin{matrix}\frac12\end{matrix} (5x^3-3x) \,
4 \begin{matrix}\frac18\end{matrix} (35x^4-30x^2+3)\,
5 \begin{matrix}\frac18\end{matrix} (63x^5-70x^3+15x)\,
6 \begin{matrix}\frac1{16}\end{matrix} (231x^6-315x^4+105x^2-5)\,
7 \begin{matrix}\frac1{16}\end{matrix} (429x^7-693x^5+315x^3-35x)\,
8 \begin{matrix}\frac1{128}\end{matrix} (6435x^8-12012x^6+6930x^4-1260x^2+35)\,
9 \begin{matrix}\frac1{128}\end{matrix} (12155x^9-25740x^7+18018x^5-4620x^3+315x)\,
10 \begin{matrix}\frac1{256}\end{matrix} (46189x^{10}-109395x^8+90090x^6-30030x^4+3465x^2-63)\,

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


An important property of the Legendre polynomials is that they are orthogonal with respect to the L2 inner product on the interval −1 ≤ x ≤ 1:

\int_{-1}^{1} P_m(x) P_n(x)\,dx = {2 \over {2n + 1}} \delta_{mn}

(where δmn denotes the Kronecker delta, equal to 1 if m = n and to 0 otherwise). In fact, an alternative derivation of the Legendre polynomials is by carrying out the Gram–Schmidt process on the polynomials {1, xx2, ...} with respect to this inner product. The reason for this orthogonality property is that the Legendre differential equation can be viewed as a Sturm–Liouville problem, where the Legendre polynomials are eigenfunctions of a Hermitian differential operator:

{d \over dx} \left[ (1-x^2) {d \over dx} P(x) \right] = -\lambda P(x),

where the eigenvalue λ corresponds to n(n + 1).

Applications of Legendre polynomials in physics

The Legendre polynomials were first introduced in 1782 by Adrien-Marie Legendre[3] as the coefficients in the expansion of the Newtonian potential

\frac{1}{\left| \mathbf{x}-\mathbf{x}^\prime \right|} = \frac{1}{\sqrt{r^2+r^{\prime 2}-2rr'\cos\gamma}} = \sum_{\ell=0}^{\infty} \frac{r^{\prime \ell}}{r^{\ell+1}} P_{\ell}(\cos \gamma)

where r and r' are the lengths of the vectors \mathbf{x} and \mathbf{x}^\prime respectively and \gamma 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, \nabla^2 \Phi(\mathbf{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 \widehat{\mathbf{z}} is the axis of symmetry and \theta is the angle between the position of the observer and the \widehat{\mathbf{z}} axis (the zenith angle), the solution for the potential will be

\Phi(r,\theta)=\sum_{\ell=0}^{\infty} \left[ A_\ell r^\ell + B_\ell r^{-(\ell+1)} \right] P_\ell(\cos\theta).

A_\ell and B_\ell are to be determined according to the boundary condition of each problem.[4]

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

Legendre polynomials in multipole expansions

Figure 2

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

\frac{1}{\sqrt{1 + \eta^{2} - 2\eta x}} = \sum_{k=0}^{\infty} \eta^{k} P_{k}(x)

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 \Phi(r, \theta) (in spherical coordinates) due to a point charge located on the z-axis at z=a (Figure 2) varies like

\Phi (r, \theta ) \propto \frac{1}{R} = \frac{1}{\sqrt{r^{2} + a^{2} - 2ar \cos\theta}}.

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

\Phi(r, \theta) \propto \frac{1}{r} \sum_{k=0}^{\infty} \left( \frac{a}{r} \right)^{k} P_{k}(\cos \theta)

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.

Additional properties of Legendre polynomials

Legendre polynomials are symmetric or antisymmetric, that is

P_n(-x) = (-1)^n P_n(x). \,[2]

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 unity) by being scaled so that

P_n(1) = 1. \,

The derivative at the end point is given by

P_n'(1) = \frac{n(n+1)}{2}. \,

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

(n+1) P_{n+1}(x) = (2n+1) x P_n(x) - n P_{n-1}(x)\,


{x^2-1 \over n} {d \over dx} P_n(x) = xP_n(x) - P_{n-1}(x).

Useful for the integration of Legendre polynomials is

(2n+1) P_n(x) = {d \over dx} \left[ P_{n+1}(x) - P_{n-1}(x) \right].

From the above one can see also that

{d \over dx} P_{n+1}(x) = (2n+1) P_n(x) + (2(n-2)+1) P_{n-2}(x) + (2(n-4)+1) P_{n-4}(x) + \ldots

or equivalently

{d \over dx} P_{n+1}(x) = {2 P_n(x) \over \| P_n(x) \|^2} + {2 P_{n-2}(x) \over \| P_{n-2}(x) \|^2}+\ldots

where \| P_n(x) \| is the norm over the interval −1 ≤ x ≤ 1

\| P_n(x) \| = \sqrt{\int _{- 1}^{1}(P_n(x))^2 \,dx} = \sqrt{\frac{2}{2 n + 1}}.

From Bonnet’s recursion formula one obtains by induction the explicit representation

P_n(x) = \sum_{k=0}^n (-1)^k \begin{pmatrix} n \\ k \end{pmatrix}^2 \left( \frac{1+x}{2} \right)^{n-k} \left( \frac{1-x}{2} \right)^k.

The Askey–Gasper inequality for Legendre polynomials reads

\sum_{j=0}^n P_j(x)\ge 0\qquad (x\ge -1).

A sum of Legendre polynomials is related to the Dirac delta function for -1\leq y\leq 1 and -1\leq x\leq1

\delta(y-x) = \frac12\sum_{\ell=0}^{\infty} (2\ell + 1) P_\ell(y)P_\ell(x)\,.

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

P_{\ell}({r}\cdot {r'})=\frac{4\pi}{2\ell + 1}\sum_{m=-\ell}^{\ell} Y_{\ell m}(\theta,\phi)Y_{\ell m}^*(\theta',\phi')\,.

where the unit vectors r and r' have spherical coordinates (\theta,\phi) and (\theta',\phi'), respectively.

Asymptotically for \ell\rightarrow \infty for arguments less than unity

P_{\ell}(\cos \theta) = J_0(\ell\theta) + \mathcal{O}(\ell^{-1}) = \frac{2}{\sqrt{2\pi \ell \sin \theta}}\cos\left[\left(\ell + \frac{1}{2}\right)\theta - \frac{\pi}{4}\right] + \mathcal{O}(\ell^{-1})

and for arguments greater than unity

P_{\ell}\left(\frac{1}{\sqrt{1-e^2}}\right) = I_0(\ell e) + \mathcal{O}(\ell^{-1}) = \frac{1}{\sqrt{2\pi \ell e}} \frac{(1+e)^{(\ell+1)/2}}{(1-e)^{\ell/2}} + \mathcal{O}(\ell^{-1})\,,

where J_0 and I_0 are Bessel functions.

Shifted Legendre polynomials

The shifted Legendre polynomials are defined as \tilde{P_n}(x) = P_n(2x-1). Here the "shifting" function x\mapsto 2x-1 (in fact, it is an affine transformation) is chosen such that it bijectively maps the interval [0, 1] to the interval [−1, 1], implying that the polynomials \tilde{P_n}(x) are orthogonal on [0, 1]:

\int_{0}^{1} \tilde{P_m}(x) \tilde{P_n}(x)\,dx = {1 \over {2n + 1}} \delta_{mn}.

An explicit expression for the shifted Legendre polynomials is given by

\tilde{P_n}(x) = (-1)^n \sum_{k=0}^n {n \choose k} {n+k \choose k} (-x)^k.

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

\tilde{P_n}(x) = \frac{1}{n!} {d^n \over dx^n } \left[ (x^2 -x)^n \right].\,

The first few shifted Legendre polynomials are:

n \tilde{P_n}(x)
0 1
1 2x-1
2 6x^2-6x+1
3 20x^3-30x^2+12x-1
4 70x^4-140x^3+90x^2-20x+1

Legendre functions of the Second Kind (Q_n)

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 Q_n(x).


The differential equation

{d \over dx} \left[ (1-x^2) {d \over dx} f(x) \right] + n(n+1)f(x) = 0

has the general solution


where A and B are constants.

Legendre functions of fractional order

Legendre functions of fractional order exist and follow from insertion of fractional derivatives as defined by fractional calculus and non-integer factorials (defined by the gamma function) into the Rodrigues' formula. The resulting functions continue to satisfy the Legendre differential equation throughout (−1,1), but are no longer regular at the endpoints. The fractional order Legendre function Pn agrees with the associated Legendre polynomial P0

See also


  1. ^ Courant & Hilbert 1953, II, §8
  2. ^ a b  
  3. ^ M. Le Gendre, "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, Tome X, pp. 411–435 (Paris, 1785). [Note: Legendre submitted his findings to the Academy in 1782, but they were published in 1785.] Available on-line (in French) at: .
  4. ^ Jackson, J.D. Classical Electrodynamics, 3rd edition, Wiley & Sons, 1999. page 103


  • Abramowitz, Milton; Stegun, Irene A., eds. (1965), "Chapter 8",   See also chapter 22.
  • Bayin, S.S. (2006), Mathematical Methods in Science and Engineering, Wiley , Chapter 2.
  • Belousov, S. L. (1962), Tables of normalized associated Legendre polynomials, Mathematical tables 18, Pergamon Press .
  •  .
  • Dunster, T. M. (2010), "Legendre and Related Functions", in  
  • Refaat El Attar (2009), Legendre Polynomials and Functions, CreateSpace,  

External links

  • A quick informal derivation of the Legendre polynomial in the context of the quantum mechanics of hydrogen
  • Hazewinkel, Michiel, ed. (2001), "Legendre polynomials",  
  • Wolfram MathWorld entry on Legendre polynomials
  • Module for Legendre Polynomials by John H. Mathews
  • Dr James B. Calvert's article on Legendre polynomials from his personal collection of mathematics
  • The Legendre Polynomials by Carlyle E. Moore
  • Legendre Polynomials from Hyperphysics
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