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Arc length of function graphs, examples

Practice finding the arc length of various function graphs.

Example 1: Practice with a semicircle

Consider a semicircle of radius 1, centered at the origin, as pictured on the right. From geometry, we know that the length of this curve is π. Let's practice our newfound method of computing arc length to rediscover the length of a semicircle.
By definition, all points (x,y) on the circle are a distance 1 from the origin, so we have
Rearranging to write y as a function of x, we have
As you set up the arc length integral, it helps to imagine approximating this curve with a bunch of small lines.
Writing down the arc-length integral, ignoring the bounds for just a moment, we get:
Just as before, we think of the integrand (dx)2+(dy)2 as representing the length of one of these little lines approximating the curve (via the Pythagorean theorem).
Now we start plugging in the definition of our particular curve into the integral.

Step 1: Write dy in terms of dx

Use the fact that y=1x2 to write dy in terms of dx.

Step 2: Replace dy in the integral

Plug this expression for dy into the integral to write the integrand completely in terms of x and dx.

Step 3: Place bounds on the integral and solve

Since the curve is defined between when x=1 and x=1, set these values as the bounds of your integral and solve it.
(Sorry, no entry box with a happy green checkmark. We know from geometry that the arc length is π, but the interesting part is to work through it to see how π pops out when using an arc length integral.)

Practice setting up arc length integrals

The actual integral you get for arc length is often difficult to compute. However, the important skill to practice is setting up that integral. So let's practice that a few times without worrying about computing the final integral (you can use a calculator or wolfram alpha once you get a concrete integral).

Example 2: Sine curve

What integral represents the arc length of the graph of y=sin(x) between x=0 and x=2π?

Example 3: Up, not right

Consider the curve representing
For all values where x4. Find an integral expressing this curve's arc length. But this time, write everything in the integral in terms of y, not x.

Example​ 4: Full generality

Suppose you have any arbitrary function f(x), with derivative f(x). Which of the following represents the arc length of the graph
between the points x=a and x=b?
Choose 1 answer:

Oftentimes people will start teaching arc length by presenting this formula. Personally, I think that takes all the fun out of discovering it yourself and getting a genuine feel for what it really represents.


  • We use the words arc length to describe how long a curve is. If you imagine the curve as a string, this is the length of that string once you pull it taut.
  • You can find the arc length of a curve with an integral of the form
  • If the curve is the graph of a function y=f(x), replace the dy term in the integral with f(x)dx, then factor out the dx. The boundary values of the integral will be the leftmost and rightmost x-values of the curve.
  • When setting up an arc length integral, it helps to think about how you would actually choose to walk along the curve.

Want to join the conversation?

  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Aryan Jamali
    In the first example with the unit circle I don't get why x = -cos(teta) isn't the x-coordinate simply cos(teta) as the trigonometric coordinate are given by the point x =(x1,y1)=(cos(teta),sin(teta)) ? :)
    (11 votes)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user jjakow
      By convention, we think of the unit circle as starting at the point (1,0). This corresponds to a
      x =cos(theta) parametrization. However, since the integral travels from the lower limit (-1,0) to the upper limit (1,0) we negate the cosine to switch direction of travel. Hope this helps
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user MichaelSuitang
    Haven't we learned about arc length in ordinary integral classes previously? Why are we studying this again?
    (3 votes)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user Stefen
      It is a review leading to Arc length of parametric curves which leads to line integrals in scalar fields which leads to line integrals in vector fields and on it goes.
      Sometimes a little refresher review on a concept helps when a new topic depends on it.
      (13 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user jp2338
    For the part of x = -cos(theta), I think a better wway to describe theta is the angle between the radius and the positive side of x-axis ( in the picture it is the angle between the radius and negative side of x-axis). And then the angle between the radius and negative side of x-axis (i.e the theta in current picture) would be pi-theta, then x = cos(pi-theta) = -cos(theta). Changing the definition of theta would be easier for student to know, otherwise it seems x=-cos(theta) comes from nowhere.
    (2 votes)
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  • winston default style avatar for user Victor Gutierrez
    First example, step 3, how to solve the integral using trigonometric substitution. This method is only valid for integrals of arc lengths right? Because if I find that integral in other contexts, I couldn´t think of the function inside the integral as a semicircle, because it is not a semicircle, although in the explanation is treated as a semicircle. So I don´t understand this method for solving these kind of integrals.
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user bluemoon29yume
    in example 1, step 1, I don't understand where did the 2 come from in the denominator? in the d(1-x^2)/2(square root of /(1-x^2)
    (1 vote)
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    • male robot donald style avatar for user Venkata
      It comes from the derivative of sqrt(1-x^(2)). Take a simpler example. Let's say we want the derivative of sqrt(x). This is just x^(1/2). Using the power rule, we get (1/2)x^(-1/2) or 1/(2sqrt(x)). The example in the article is the same, but as the inside of the square is a function, you need the chain rule.
      (2 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user jimlkport
    I put in 1+4y^2 instead of 4y^2+1 and got wrong answer! Nice going........
    (0 votes)
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