Analyzing the running time of nonrecursive algorithms is pretty straightforward. You count the lines of code, and if there are any loops, you multiply by the length. However, recursive algorithms are not that intuitive. They divide the input into one or more subproblems. On this post, we are going to learn how to get the big O notation for most recursive algorithms.
We are going to explore how to obtain the time complexity of recursive algorithms. For that, we are going to use the Master Theorem (or master method).
This post is part of a tutorial series:
Learning Data Structures and Algorithms (DSA) for Beginners
 Intro to algorithm’s time complexity and Big O notation
 Eight time complexities that every programmer should know
 Analysis of Recursive Algorithms 👈 you are here
Master Theorem
The Master Theorem is the easiest way of obtaining runtime of recursive algorithms. First, you need to identify three elements:
a
: Subproblems. How many recursion (split) functions are there? E.g., the Binary search has 1 split, Merge Sort has 2 split, etc.b
: Relative subproblem size. What rate is the input reduced? E.g., Binary search and Merge sort cut input in half.f(n)
Runtime of the work done outside the recursion? E.g. `O(n)` or `O(1)`
The general formula for the Master Theorem is:
` T(n) = a * T(n / b) + f(n) `
Once, we have a
, b
and f(n)
we can determine the runtime of the work done by the recursion. That is given by:
` O(n^(log_b a)) `
Finally, we compare the runtime of the split/recursion functions and f(n)
. There are 3 possible cases:
Case 1 Recursion/split runtime is higher: `n^(log_b a) > f(n)`
Final runtime: `O(n^(log_b a))`
Case 2 Same runtime inside and outside recursion: `n^(log_b a) ~~ f(n)`
Final runtime: `O(n^(log_b a) log n)`
Case 3: Recursion/split runtime is lower: `n^(log_b a) < f(n)`
Final runtime: `O(f(n))`
These 3 cases might see a little abstract at first, but after a few examples, it will be more evident.
Master Theorem Examples
In the [previous post])(/blog/2018/04/05/mostpopularalgorithmstimecomplexityeveryprogrammershouldknowfreeonlinetutorialcourse/) we used Master Method to get the time complexity for the binary search and merge sort. Both of them fall into the case 2. Let’s explore some other examples.
Case 1 Example
What’s the runtime of this recursion?


1) Let’s identify a
, b
and f(n)
from the Master Theorem
 Subproblems? 2, so
a=2
 Subproblems size? it’s 1/4 of the original
n
size, thusb=4
 Runtime without recursion? Constant, therefore
f(n) = 1
.
Substituting the values we get:
` T(n) = a * T(n / b) + f(n) `
` T(n) = 2 * T(n / 4) + 1 `
2) What’s the runtime of the recursion by itself? Using the formula, we get:
` n^(log_b a) `
` n^(log_4 2) = n^0.5 = sqrt(n)`
3) Comparing f(n)
with the result in step 2, we see that it matches case 1.
Since `O(n^0.5) > O(1)` then the runtime is:
` O(n^(log_b a)) `
` O(n^(log_4 2)) `
` O(sqrt(n)) `
Case 2 Example
What would be the runtime of the mergesort if instead of splitting the array in 2 we split it up in 3?


So, this new implementation divides the input into 3 subproblems (a = 3
). The input size is divided by 3 (b=3
). The work to merge
the 3 subproblems is still O(n)
.
1) Using the Master Theorem, we get:
` T(n) = a * T(n / b) + f(n) `
` T(n) = 3 * T(n / 3) + n `
2) Let’s compute the amount of work done in the recursion:
` n^(log_b a) `
` n^(log_3 3) = n `
3) Since f(n)
and the recursive work is the same: n
, we are looking at the case 2. Thus, the runtime is:
`O(n^(log_b a) log n)`
`O(n^(log_3 3) log n)`
`O(n log n)`
It’s the same as merge sort dividing the input into 2 subproblems and half n
.
Case 3 Example
The case 3 of the Master Method is not very common in real life. It implies that most of the work is done in the base case of the recursion. If most work is done outside the recursion, it means that we can rewrite the code in a nonrecursive way.
Anyways, let’s solve this example:
1) ` T(n) = 3 * T(n / 2) + n^2 `
 a=3
 b=2
 f(n) = n^2
2) Calculate recursive work:
` n^(log_2 3) `
` n^(1.48) `
3) Since f(n)
is bigger than the recursive work we have:
` O(n^2) `
Master Method Exceptions
The master method is handy but there are certain cases when you cannot use it.
T(n)
is not monotone. E.g. ` T(n) = sin n`.f(n)
is not polynomial. E.g. ` T(n) = 2 * T(n/2) + 2^n `.b
cannot be expressed as a constant. E.g. ` T(n) = 2 * T(sqrt(n)) + n `.
For these cases, you would have to recursion tree method or substitution method. We are going to explore these methods in future posts after covering the fundamentals.
Summary
On this post, we provided the tools to quickly obtain the runtime of recursive algorithms that split input by a constant factor. We covered the Master Method and provided examples for each one of its possible cases.