Bra-ket notation

Bra-ket notation is a standard notation for describing quantum states in the theory of quantum mechanics composed of angle brackets (chevrons) and vertical bars. It can also be used to denote abstract vectors and linear functionals in pure mathematics. It is so called because the inner product (or dot product) of two states is denoted by a bracket, langlephi|psirangle, consisting of a left part, langlephi|, called the bra, and a right part, |psirangle, called the ket. The notation was invented by Paul Dirac, and is also known as Dirac notation.

Bras and kets

Most common use: Quantum mechanics

In quantum mechanics, the state of a physical system is identified with a ray in a complex separable Hilbert space, mathcal{H}, or, equivalently, by a point in the projective Hilbert space of the system. Each vector in the ray is called a "ket" and written as |psirangle, which would be read as "ket psi ". (The ψ can be replaced by any symbols, letters, numbers, or even words—whatever serves as a convenient label for the ket.) The ket can be viewed as a column vector and (given a basis for the Hilbert space) written out in components,
|psirangle = (c_0, c_1, c_2, ...)^T,
when the considered Hilbert space is finite-dimensional. In infinite-dimensional spaces there are infinitely many components and the ket may be written in complex function notation, by prepending it with a bra (see below). For example,
langle x|psirangle = psi(x) = c e^{- ikx}.

Every ket |psirangle has a dual bra, written as langlepsi|. For example, the bra corresponding to the ket |psirangle above would be the row vector

langlepsi| = (c_0^*, c_1^*, c_2^*, ...).

This is a continuous linear functional from mathcal H to the complex numbers mathbb{C}, defined by:

langlepsi| : mathcal H to mathbb{C}: langle psi | left(|rhorangle right) = operatorname{IP}left(|psirangle ;,; |rhorangle right) for all kets |rhorangle

where operatorname{IP}(cdot , cdot ) denotes the inner product defined on the Hilbert space. Here an advantage of the bra-ket notation becomes clear: when we drop the parentheses (as is common with linear functionals) and meld the bars together we get langlepsi|rhorangle, which is common notation for an inner product in a Hilbert space. This combination of a bra with a ket to form a complex number is called a bra-ket or bracket.

The bra is simply the conjugate transpose (also called the Hermitian conjugate) of the ket and vice versa. The notation is justified by the Riesz representation theorem, which states that a Hilbert space and its dual space are isometrically conjugate isomorphic. Thus, each bra corresponds to exactly one ket, and vice versa. More precisely, if J: mathcal H rightarrow mathcal H^* is the Riesz isomorphism between mathcal H and its dual space, then forall phi in mathcal H: ; langlephi| = J(|phirangle).

Note that this only applies to states that are actually vectors in the Hilbert space. Non-normalizable states, such as those whose wavefunctions are Dirac delta functions or infinite plane waves, do not technically belong to the Hilbert space. So if such a state is written as a ket, it will not have a corresponding bra according to the above definition. This problem can be dealt with in either of two ways. First, since all physical quantum states are normalizable, one can carefully avoid non-normalizable states. Alternatively, the underlying theory can be modified and generalized to accommodate such states, as in the Gelfand-Naimark-Segal construction or rigged Hilbert spaces. In fact, physicists routinely use bra-ket notation for non-normalizable states, taking the second approach either implicitly or explicitly.

In quantum mechanics the expression langlephi|psirangle (mathematically: the coefficient for the projection of psi! onto phi!) is typically interpreted as the probability amplitude for the state psi! to collapse into the state phi.!

More general uses

Bra-ket notation can be used even if the vector space is not a Hilbert space. In any Banach space B, the vectors may be notated by kets and the continuous linear functionals by bras. Over any vector space without topology, we may also notate the vectors by kets and the linear functionals by bras. In these more general contexts, the bracket does not have the meaning of an inner product, because the Riesz representation theorem does not apply.

Linear operators

If A : HH is a linear operator, we can apply A to the ket |psirangle to obtain the ket (A|psirangle). Linear operators are ubiquitous in the theory of quantum mechanics. For example, observable physical quantities are represented by self-adjoint operators, such as energy or momentum, whereas transformative processes are represented by unitary linear operators such as rotation or the progression of time.

Operators can also be viewed as acting on bras from the right hand side. Composing the bra langlephi| with the operator A results in the bra bigg(langlephi|Abigg), defined as a linear functional on H by the rule

bigg(langlephi|Abigg) ; |psirangle = langlephi| ; bigg(A|psiranglebigg).

This expression is commonly written as


If the same state vector appears on both bra and ket side, this expression gives the expectation value, or mean or average value, of the observable represented by operator A for the physical system in the state |psirangle, written as


A convenient way to define linear operators on H is given by the outer product: if langlephi| is a bra and |psirangle is a ket, the outer product

|phirang lang psi|

denotes the rank-one operator that maps the ket |rhorangle to the ket |phiranglelanglepsi|rhorangle (where langlepsi|rhorangle is a scalar multiplying the vector |phirangle). One of the uses of the outer product is to construct projection operators. Given a ket |psirangle of norm 1, the orthogonal projection onto the subspace spanned by |psirangle is


Just as kets and bras can be transformed into each other (making |psirangle into langlepsi|) the element from the dual space corresponding with A|psirangle is langle psi | A^dagger where A denotes the Hermitian conjugate of the operator A.

It is usually taken as a postulate or axiom of quantum mechanics, that any operator corresponding to an observable quantity (shortly called observable) is self-adjoint, that is, it satisfies A = A. Then the identity

langle psi | A | psi rangle^star = langle psi |A^dagger |psi rangle = langle psi | A | psi rangle
holds (for the first equality, use the scalar product's conjugate symmetry and the conversion rule from the preceding paragraph). This implies that expectation values of observables are real.


Bra-ket notation was designed to facilitate the formal manipulation of linear-algebraic expressions. Some of the properties that allow this manipulation are listed herein. In what follows, c1 and c2 denote arbitrary complex numbers, c* denotes the complex conjugate of c, A and B denote arbitrary linear operators, and these properties are to hold for any choice of bras and kets.


  • Since bras are linear functionals,

langlephi| ; bigg(c_1|psi_1rangle + c_2|psi_2rangle bigg) = c_1langlephi|psi_1rangle + c_2langlephi|psi_2rangle.

  • By the definition of addition and scalar multiplication of linear functionals in the dual space,

bigg(c_1 langlephi_1| + c_2 langlephi_2|bigg) ; |psirangle = c_1 langlephi_1|psirangle + c_2langlephi_2|psirangle.


Given any expression involving complex numbers, bras, kets, inner products, outer products, and/or linear operators (but not addition), written in bra-ket notation, the parenthetical groupings do not matter (i.e., the associative property holds). For example:
lang psi| (A |phirang) = (lang psi|A)|phirang
(A|psirang)lang phi| = A(|psirang lang phi|)
and so forth. The expressions can thus be written, unambiguously, with no parentheses whatsoever. Note that the associative property does not hold for expressions that include non-linear operators, such as the antilinear time reversal operator in physics.

Hermitian conjugation

Bra-ket notation makes it particularly easy to compute the Hermitian conjugate (also called dagger, and denoted †) of expressions. The formal rules are:

  • The Hermitian conjugate of a bra is the corresponding ket, and vice-versa.
  • The Hermitian conjugate of a complex number is its complex conjugate.
  • The Hermitian conjugate of the Hermitian conjugate of anything (linear operators, bras, kets, numbers) is itself—i.e.,


  • Given any combination of complex numbers, bras, kets, inner products, outer products, and/or linear operators, written in bra-ket notation, its Hermitian conjugate can be computed by reversing the order of the components, and taking the Hermitian conjugate of each.

These rules are sufficient to formally write the Hermitian conjugate of any such expression; some examples are as follows:

  • Kets:

left(c_1|psi_1rangle + c_2|psi_2rangleright)^dagger = c_1^* langlepsi_1| + c_2^* langlepsi_2|.

  • Inner products:

lang phi | psi rang^* = lang psi|phirang

  • Matrix elements:

lang phi| A | psi rang^* = lang psi | A^dagger |phi rang
lang phi| A^dagger B^dagger | psi rang^* = lang psi | BA |phi rang

  • Outer products:

left((c_1|phi_1ranglang psi_1|) + (c_2|phi_2ranglangpsi_2|)right)^dagger = (c_1^* |psi_1ranglang phi_1|) + (c_2^*|psi_2ranglangphi_2|)

Composite bras and kets

Two Hilbert spaces V and W may form a third space V otimes W by a tensor product. In quantum mechanics, this is used for describing composite systems. If a system is composed of two subsystems described in V and W respectively, then the Hilbert space of the entire system is the tensor product of the two spaces. (The exception to this is if the subsystems are actually identical particles. In that case, the situation is a little more complicated.)

If |psirangle is a ket in V and |phirangle is a ket in W, the direct product of the two kets is a ket in V otimes W. This is written variously as

|psirangle|phirangle or |psirangle otimes |phirangle or |psi phirangle or |psi ,phirangle.

Representations in terms of bras and kets

In quantum mechanics, it is often convenient to work with the projections of state vectors onto a particular basis, rather than the vectors themselves. The reason is that the former are simply complex numbers, and can be formulated in terms of partial differential equations (see, for example, the derivation of the position-basis Schrödinger equation). This process is very similar to the use of coordinate vectors in linear algebra.

For instance, the Hilbert space of a zero-spin point particle is spanned by a position basis lbrace|mathbf{x}ranglerbrace, where the label x extends over the set of position vectors. Starting from any ket |psirangle in this Hilbert space, we can define a complex scalar function of x, known as a wavefunction:

psi(mathbf{x}) stackrel{text{def}}{=} lang mathbf{x}|psirang.

It is then customary to define linear operators acting on wavefunctions in terms of linear operators acting on kets, by

A psi(mathbf{x}) stackrel{text{def}}{=} lang mathbf{x}|A|psirang.

For instance, the momentum operator p has the following form:

mathbf{p} psi(mathbf{x}) stackrel{text{def}}{=} lang mathbf{x} |mathbf{p}|psirang = - i hbar nabla psi(x).

One occasionally encounters an expression like

- i hbar nabla |psirang.

This is something of an abuse of notation, though a fairly common one. The differential operator must be understood to be an abstract operator, acting on kets, that has the effect of differentiating wavefunctions once the expression is projected into the position basis:

- i hbar nabla langmathbf{x}|psirang.

For further details, see rigged Hilbert space.

The unit operator

Consider a complete orthonormal system (basis), { e_i | i in mathbb{N} }, for a Hilbert space H, with respect to the norm from an inner product langlecdot,cdotrangle. From basic functional analysis we know that any ket |psirangle can be written as

|psirangle = sum_{i in mathbb{N}} langle e_i | psi rangle | e_i rangle,
with langlecdot|cdotrangle the inner product on the Hilbert space. From the commutativity of kets with (complex) scalars now follows that
sum_{i in mathbb{N}} | e_i rangle langle e_i | = hat{1}
must be the unit operator, which sends each vector to itself. This can be inserted in any expression without affecting its value, for example
langle v | w rangle = langle v | sum_{i in mathbb{N}} | e_i rangle langle e_i | w rangle = langle v | sum_{i in mathbb{N}} | e_i rangle langle e_i | sum_{j in mathbb{N}} | e_j rangle langle e_j | w rangle = langle v | e_i rangle langle e_i | e_j rangle langle e_j | w rangle
where in the last identity Einstein summation convention has been used.

In quantum mechanics it often occurs that little or no information about the inner product langlepsi|phirangle of two arbitrary (state) kets is present, while it is possible to say something about the expansion coefficients langlepsi|e_irangle = langle e_i|psirangle^* and langle e_i|phirangle of those vectors with respect to a chosen (orthonormalized) basis. In this case it is particularly useful to insert the unit operator into the bracket one time or more.

Notation used by mathematicians

The object physicists are considering when using the "bra-ket" notation is a Hilbert space (a complete inner product space).

Let mathcal{H} be a Hilbert space and hinmathcal{H} . What physicists would denote as |hrangle is the vector itself. That is

(|hrangle)in mathcal{H} .

Let mathcal{H}^* be the dual space of mathcal{H} . This is the space of linear functionals on mathcal{H}. The isomorphism Phi:mathcal{H}tomathcal{H}^* is defined by Phi(h) = phi_h where for all ginmathcal{H} we have

phi_h(g) = mbox{IP}(h,g) = (h,g) = langle h,g rangle = langle h|g rangle ,
mbox{IP}(cdot,cdot), (cdot,cdot),langle cdot,cdot rangle, langle cdot | cdot rangle
are just different notations for expressing an inner product between two elements in a Hilbert space (or for the first three, in any inner product space). Notational confusion arises when identifying phi_h and g with langle h | and |g rangle respectively. This is because of literal symbolic substitutions. Let phi_h = H = langle h| and g=G=|grangle . This gives

phi_h(g) = H(g) = H(G)=langle h|(G) = langle h|(

One ignores the parentheses and removes the double bars. Some properties of this notation are convenient since we are dealing with linear operators and composition acts like a ring multiplication.

References and notes

Further reading

External links

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