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How to use the Symbolic Math Toolbox in MATLAB to analyze the Fourier series

March 2, 2022

Symbolic Math Toolbox provides an easy, intuitive and complete environment to interactively learn and apply math operations such as calculus, algebra, and differential equations.

It can perform common analytical computations such as differentiation and integration to get close form results.

It simplifies and manipulates expression for great insights and solves algebraic and differential equations.

In this tutorial, the Fourier series (Trigonometric and Exponential) is implemented and simulated using MATLAB’s Symbolic Math Toolbox.

The proposed programs are versatile and can receive any function of time(t). It means that the function is dependent on time.

Moreover, the program gives plots of harmonics, original and approximated functions, magnitude spectrum, and phase spectrum.

This toolbox is already available in MATLAB. Therefore, you do not need to retrieve it from an external source. For example, to understand more about the Fourier series, you can read here.


To follow along with this tutorial, you will need:

  1. MATLAB installed.
  2. A proper understanding of MATLAB basics.

Symbolic Math Toolbox

This toolbox has a wide range of applications:

To visualize analytical expressions in 2D and 3D and animate plots to create videos.

Symbolic Math Toolbox in the live editor (mode in MATLAB) lets you interactively update and display Symbolic math computations.

Besides, MATLAB code, formatted text, equations, and images can be published as executable live scripts, PDFs, or HTML documents.

While working with analytical problems, you can receive suggestions and tips. These suggestions help one insert and execute function calls or tasks directly into live scripts.

The Symbolic Math Toolbox also provides precision for higher or lower positions. It allows algorithms to run better than MATLAB’s in-built double. Furthermore, it has units for working with physical quantities and performing dimensional analysis.

Units for working with physical quantities

This is an example of how this toolbox adds units for physical quantities

Symbolic Math Toolbox is widely applied in many engineering and scientific applications. Symbolic expressions of exact gradient and Hessians improve accuracy and optimization speed.

In non-linear control design, the Symbolic Math Toolbox improves recalculation speed at any operating point during execution. Furthermore, you can integrate symbolic results with MATLAB and Simulink applications. It is done by converting symbolic expressions into numeric MATLAB functions, Simulink, and Simscape blocks.

converting functions to Simulink

Sample of function converted to Simulink

Now, all these applications discussed above were to give you an insight into the wide application of this toolbox. However, not all of them are discussed here. Here, we will only major in using the toolbox to solve Fourier series problems.

How to use the Symbolic Math Toolbox

This toolbox is enabled in MATLAB using the function syms. However, you get an error message if you have the expression x=2*a+b and try to execute it in Matlab. The error message is undefined function or variable ‘a’ as shown below:

x = 2*a + b


Undefined function or variable 'a'.

When using the syms function, the variable x is saved without the error message. When using the Symbolic Math Toolbox, the idea here is that you first define the symbolic variables. Symbolic variables are the undefined variables in an equation. For example, our symbols are a and b for our expression above. We first define these variables using the symbolic function syms.

syms a b

After defining the symbols and rerunning the code above, our workspace stored our variables. We will then have:

syms a b
x = 2*a + b


x =
2*a + b

Solving Fourier series using the Symbolic Math Toolbox

Let’s say we have a Fourier transform shown below:

$$\int e^{(\frac{-t}{2})}u(t) e^{-jwt}dt$$

The symbolic variables are t, w, T, and W, which we define by executing the command below:

syms t w T W

w is the angle theta, T is the time function, and W is used to express the angular radians in the Fourier transform.

After the declaration of the symbolic variables, you can write the Fourier transform as shown below:

f = int(exp(-t/2)*exp(-j*w*t), t, [0, inf])

In MATLAB, int means integration. In the MATLAB expression above: exp(-t/2) is our equation which we are finding its Fourier transform. exp(-j*w*t) is the basic function of the Fourier transform. t shows that we are differentiating with respect to time. [0, inf] shows the integration limits from 0 to infinity.

Note that we don’t write f(t) when writing our equation in MATLAB. It is because we already know that our function is a time function. Also, t is a symbol variable, so we do not write it in our expression.

When the above program is executed, we get the output below:

f =
2/(1 + w*2i) - (2*limit(exp(-t/2)*exp(-t*w*1i), t, Inf))/(1 + w*2i)

To format this output in a user-friendly manner, we use the function pretty(). pretty(f) prints the symbolic expression f in a format that resembles type-set mathematical equations. When you execute this function in the command window, we have:



          /             /   t \              \
          |    lim   exp| - - | exp(-t w 1i) | 2
   2      \ t -> Inf    \   2 /              /
-------- - --------------------------------------
1 + w 2i                  1 + w 2i

Now, we need to get the values of w since we use them to plot the Fourier transform. To do that, execute the code below:

f_sub = subs(f, w, [-pi: pi])

subs mean symbolic substitution. This function replaces the symbolic variable in f with the values of w. The values range from -pi to pi. When we do this, we get the values below:

f_sub =
[ -2/(- 1 + pi*2i), 39614081257132168796771975168/383180597959374460738291811785 + 169674450797966737934326431744i/383180597959374460738291811785, 39614081257132168796771975168/123059858877705322463182898633 + 90446288283702400340782481408i/123059858877705322463182898633, 39614081257132168796771975168/21395444824564859375161886153 + 11218125769438062747238531072i/21395444824564859375161886153, 39614081257132168796771975168/78187355799953071474228774345 - 68010036744826274846305419264i/78187355799953071474228774345, 39614081257132168796771975168/293435591803869958760383563209 - 147238199259090612439849369600i/293435591803869958760383563209, 39614081257132168796771975168/667140152836315521233626252745 - 226466361773354950033393319936i/667140152836315521233626252745]

We now plot these values using the plot() function.

subplot(2, 1, 2);
plot(angle(double(f_sub)));   %angle are the w values.
title('phase spectrum')   % title

plot(angle(double(data_value))) gives the phase spectrum plot. The function subplot() is used to create a subplot. title() gives the plot a title.

phase spectrum

Phase spectrum plot

Now, let us plot the magnitude response using the same values of w.

subplot(2, 1, 1); 
plot(abs(double(f_sub))); %magnitude spectrum plot
title('magnitude spectrum')

The code plot(abs(double(data_values))) gives the magnitude spectrum. This plot uses the absolute values of the data, thus abs().

magnitude spectrum

Magnitude spectrum plot

Example 2

Let’s look at another example:

example 2

We will have:

syms t w T W
f = int(1*exp(-j*w*t), t, [-T, T])

The output here is:

f =

pretty(f) gives:

2 sin(T w)

To find the values of w, we use the subs() function.

f_sub = subs(f, T, 0.5)

The output is:

f_sub =
(2*sin(w/2))/w     % the output after execution of the code above.

After that, we plot the absolute values of the variable f-sub.

ezplot(abs(f_sub), [-pi: pi])

Output is:

Range of -pi to pi

Plot for the range -pi to pi

ezplot(abs(f_sub), [-2*pi: 2*pi])

Range of -2pi to 2pi

Plot for the range -2pi to 2pi

ezplot(abs(f_sub), [-4*pi: 4*pi])

Range of -4pi to 4pi

Plot for the range -4pi to 4pi

ezplot(abs(f_sub), [-8*pi: 8*pi])

Range of -8pi to 8pi

Plot for the range -8pi to 8pi

While making the plots, we used the ezplot function. ezplot(FUN) is used to plot a function x over the default domain, -2*pi<x<2*pi. As we have seen, the Symbolic Math Toolbox makes it easy to analyze the Fourier series. Moreover, it makes it easy since you do not have to write long codes.


Symbolic Math Toolbox is an important toolbox for solving differential and integration operations. As we have seen in solving the Fourier series above, it is easy to use. This toolbox also helps find the Laplace transform of various equations. Generally, this toolbox has a wide application in science and engineering.

Enjoy coding!

Peer Review Contributions by: Sandra Moringa