In chapter 9 of the book Pattern recognition and machine learning, there is this part about Gaussian mixture model:

enter image description here enter image description here To be honest I don't really understand why this would create a singularity. Can anyone explain this to me? I'm sorry but I'm just an undergraduate and a novice in machine learning, so my question may sound a little silly, but please help me. Thank you very much

  • $\begingroup$ Looks like it's easily fixed too, reparameterize to $\sigma_k^2=\tau^2\gamma_k $ and then penalise $\gamma_k $ for being too close to zero when optimizing. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 2:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @probabilityislogic Not sure if I'm following here :( $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 3:07
  • $\begingroup$ A related question. $\endgroup$
    – Zhanxiong
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 3:12

5 Answers 5


If we want to fit a Gaussian to a single data point using maximum likelihood, we will get a very spiky Gaussian that "collapses" to that point. The variance is zero when there's only one point, which in the multi-variate Gaussian case, leads to a singular covariance matrix, so it's called the singularity problem.

When the variance gets to zero, the likelihood of the Gaussian component (formula 9.15) goes to infinity and the model becomes overfitted. This doesn't occur when we fit only one Gaussian to a number of points since the variance can not be zero. But it can happen when we have a mixture of Gaussians, as illustrated on the same page of PRML.

enter image description here

The book suggests two methods for addressing the singularity problem, which are

1) resetting the mean and variance when singularity occurs enter image description here

2) using MAP instead of MLE by adding a prior. enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ About the single Gaussian case, why is the variance cannot be zero ? The textbook says: "Recall that this problem did not arise in the case of a single Gaussian distribution. To understand the difference, note that if a single Gaussian collapses onto a data point it will contribute multiplicative factors to the likelihood function arising from the other data points and these factors will go to zero exponentially fast, giving an overall likelihood that goes to zero rather than infinity. " but I don't understand it very much :( $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ @DangManhTruong that's because according to the definition of variance, $var(x) = E[(x-\mu)^2]$, unless all the points are of the same value, we always have a non-zero variance. $\endgroup$
    – dontloo
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 3:57
  • $\begingroup$ I see! Thanks :D So in practice what should we do to avoid it? The book doesn't explain about that. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 4:44
  • $\begingroup$ @DangManhTruong hi, I added it to the answer, please take a look :) $\endgroup$
    – dontloo
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 4:56
  • $\begingroup$ @DangManhTruong you're welcome $\endgroup$
    – dontloo
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 7:37

This answer will give an insight into what is happening that leads to a singular covariance matrix during the fitting of an GMM to a dataset, why this is happening as well as what we can do to prevent that.

Therefore we best start by recapitulating the steps during the fitting of a Gaussian Mixture Model to a dataset.

0. Decide how many sources/clusters (c) you want to fit to your data
1. Initialize the parameters mean $\mu_c$, covariance $\Sigma_c$, and fraction_per_class $\pi_c$ per cluster c


  1. Calculate for each datapoint $x_i$ the probability $r_{ic}$ that datapoint $x_i$ belongs to cluster c with:

    $$r_{ic} = \frac{\pi_c N(\boldsymbol{x_i} \ | \ \boldsymbol{\mu_c},\boldsymbol{\Sigma_c})}{\Sigma_{k=1}^K \pi_k N(\boldsymbol{x_i \ | \ \boldsymbol{\mu_k},\boldsymbol{\Sigma_k}})}$$ where $N(\boldsymbol{x} \ | \ \boldsymbol{\mu},\boldsymbol{\Sigma})$ describes the mulitvariate Gaussian with:

    $$N(\boldsymbol{x_i},\boldsymbol{\mu_c},\boldsymbol{\Sigma_c}) \ = \ \frac{1}{(2\pi)^{\frac{n}{2}}|\Sigma_c|^{\frac{1}{2}}}exp(-\frac{1}{2}(\boldsymbol{x_i}-\boldsymbol{\mu_c})^T\boldsymbol{\Sigma_c^{-1}}(\boldsymbol{x_i}-\boldsymbol{\mu_c}))$$

    $r_{ic}$ gives us for each datapoint $x_i$ the measure of: $\frac{Probability \ that \ x_i \ belongs \ to \ class \ c}{Probability \ of \ x_i \ over \ all \ classes}$ hence if $x_i$ is very close to one gaussian c, it will get a high $r_{ic}$ value for this gaussian and relatively low values otherwise.


    For each cluster c: Calculate the total weight $m_c$ (loosely speaking the fraction of points allocated to cluster c) and update $\pi_c$, $\mu_c$, and $\Sigma_c$ using $r_{ic}$ with:

    $$m_c \ = \ \Sigma_i r_ic$$
    $$\pi_c \ = \ \frac{m_c}{m}$$
    $$\boldsymbol{\mu_c} \ = \ \frac{1}{m_c}\Sigma_i r_{ic} \boldsymbol{x_i} $$
    $$\boldsymbol{\Sigma_c} \ = \ \frac{1}{m_c}\Sigma_i r_{ic}(\boldsymbol{x_i}-\boldsymbol{\mu_c})(\boldsymbol{x_i}-\boldsymbol{\mu_c})^T$$
    Mind that you have to use the updated means in this last formula.

    Iteratively repeat the E and M step until the log-likelihood function of our model converges where the log likelihood is computed with:

    $$ln \ p(\boldsymbol{X} \ | \ \boldsymbol{\pi},\boldsymbol{\mu},\boldsymbol{\Sigma}) \ = \ \Sigma_{i=1}^N \ ln(\Sigma_{k=1}^K \pi_k N(\boldsymbol{x_i} \ | \ \boldsymbol{\mu_k},\boldsymbol{\Sigma_k}))$$

So now we have derived the single steps during the calculation we have to consider what it mean for a matrix to be singular. A matrix is singular if it is not invertible. A matrix is invertible if there is a matrix $X$ such that $AX = XA = I$. If this is not given, the matrix is said to be singular. That is, a matrix like:

\begin{bmatrix} 0 & 0 \\ 0 & 0 \end{bmatrix}

is not invertible and following singular. It is also plausible, that if we assume that the above matrix is matrix $A$ there could not be a matrix $X$ which gives dotted with this matrix the identity matrix $I$ (Simply take this zero matrix and dot-product it with any other 2x2 matrix and you will see that you will always get the zero matrix). But why is this a problem for us? Well, consider the formula for the multivariate normal above. There you would find $\boldsymbol{\Sigma_c^{-1}}$ which is the invertible of the covariance matrix. Since a singular matrix is not invertible, this will throw us an error during the computation.
So now that we know how a singular, not invertible matrix looks like and why this is important to us during the GMM calculations, how could we ran into this issue? First of all, we get this $\boldsymbol{0}$ covariance matrix above if the Multivariate Gaussian falls into one point during the iteration between the E and M step. This could happen if we have for instance a dataset to which we want to fit 3 gaussians but which actually consists only of two classes (clusters) such that loosely speaking, two of these three gaussians catch their own cluster while the last gaussian only manages it to catch one single point on which it sits. We will see how this looks like below. But step by step: Assume you have a two dimensional dataset which consist of two clusters but you don't know that and want to fit three gaussian models to it, that is c = 3. You initialize your parameters in the E step and plot the gaussians on top of your data which looks smth. like (maybe you can see the two relatively scattered clusters on the bottom left and top right): [![enter image description here][1]][1] Having initialized the parameter, you iteratively do the E, T steps. During this procedure the three Gaussians are kind of wandering around and searching for their optimal place. If you observe the model parameters, that is $\mu_c$ and $\pi_c$ you will observe that they converge, that it after some number of iterations they will no longer change and therewith the corresponding Gaussian has found its place in space. In the case where you have a singularity matrix you encounter smth. like: [![enter image description here][2]][2] Where I have circled the third gaussian model with red. So you see, that this Gaussian sits on one single datapoint while the two others claim the rest. Here I have to notice that to be able to draw the figure like that I already have used covariance-regularization which is a method to prevent singularity matrices and is described below.

Ok , but now we still do not know why and how we encounter a singularity matrix. Therefore we have to look at the calculations of the $r_{ic}$ and the $cov$ during the E and M steps. If you look at the $r_{ic}$ formula again:
$$r_{ic} = \frac{\pi_c N(\boldsymbol{x_i} \ | \ \boldsymbol{\mu_c},\boldsymbol{\Sigma_c})}{\Sigma_{k=1}^K \pi_k N(\boldsymbol{x_i \ | \ \boldsymbol{\mu_k},\boldsymbol{\Sigma_k}})}$$ you see that there the $r_{ic}$'s would have large values if they are very likely under cluster c and low values otherwise. To make this more apparent consider the case where we have two relatively spread gaussians and one very tight gaussian and we compute the $r_{ic}$ for each datapoint $x_i$ as illustrated in the figure: [![enter image description here][3]][3] So go through the datapoints from left to right and imagine you would write down the probability for each $x_i$ that it belongs to the red, blue and yellow gaussian. What you can see is that for most of the $x_i$ the probability that it belongs to the yellow gaussian is very little. In the case above where the third gaussian sits onto one single datapoint, $r_{ic}$ is only larger than zero for this one datapoint while it is zero for every other $x_i$. (collapses onto this datapoint --> This happens if all other points are more likely part of gaussian one or two and hence this is the only point which remains for gaussian three --> The reason why this happens can be found in the interaction between the dataset itself in the initializaion of the gaussians. That is, if we had chosen other initial values for the gaussians, we would have seen another picture and the third gaussian maybe would not collapse). This is sufficient if you further and further spikes this gaussian. The $r_{ic}$ table then looks smth. like: [![enter image description here][4]][4] As you can see, the $r_{ic}$ of the third column, that is for the third gaussian are zero instead of this one row. If we look up which datapoint is represented here we get the datapoint: [ 23.38566343 8.07067598]. Ok, but why do we get a singularity matrix in this case? Well, and this is our last step, therefore we have to once more consider the calculation of the covariance matrix which is: $$\boldsymbol{\Sigma_c} \ = \ \Sigma_i r_{ic}(\boldsymbol{x_i}-\boldsymbol{\mu_c})(\boldsymbol{x_i}-\boldsymbol{\mu_c})^T$$ we have seen that all $r_{ic}$ are zero instead for the one $x_i$ with [23.38566343 8.07067598]. Now the formula wants us to calculate $(\boldsymbol{x_i}-\boldsymbol{\mu_c})$. If we look at the $\boldsymbol{\mu_c}$ for this third gaussian we get [23.38566343 8.07067598]. Oh, but wait, that exactly the same as $x_i$ and that's what Bishop wrote with:"Suppose that one of the components of the mixture model, let us say the $j$ th component, has its mean $\boldsymbol{\mu_j}$ exactly equal to one of the data points so that $\boldsymbol{\mu_j} = \boldsymbol{x_n}$ for some value of *n*" (Bishop, 2006, p.434). So what will happen? Well, this term will be zero and hence this datapoint was the only chance for the covariance-matrix not to get zero (since this datapoint was the only one where $r_{ic}$>0), it now gets zero and looks like:

\begin{bmatrix} 0 & 0 \\ 0 & 0 \end{bmatrix}

Consequently as said above, this is a singular matrix and will lead to an error during the calculations of the multivariate gaussian. So how can we prevent such a situation. Well, we have seen that the covariance matrix is singular if it is the $\boldsymbol{0}$ matrix. Hence to prevent singularity we simply have to prevent that the covariance matrix becomes a $\boldsymbol{0}$ matrix. This is done by adding a very little value (in [sklearn's GaussianMixture](http://scikit-learn.org/stable/modules/generated/sklearn.mixture.GaussianMixture.html#sklearn.mixture.GaussianMixture) this value is set to 1e-6) to the digonal of the covariance matrix. There are also other ways to prevent singularity such as noticing when a gaussian collapses and setting its mean and/or covariance matrix to a new, arbitrarily high value(s). This covariance regularization is also implemented in the code below with which you get the described results. Maybe you have to run the code several times to get a singular covariance matrix since, as said. this must not happen each time but also depends on the initial set up of the gaussians.
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
from matplotlib import style
from sklearn.datasets.samples_generator import make_blobs
import numpy as np
from scipy.stats import multivariate_normal

# 0. Create dataset
X,Y = make_blobs(cluster_std=2.5,random_state=20,n_samples=500,centers=3)

# Stratch dataset to get ellipsoid data
X = np.dot(X,np.random.RandomState(0).randn(2,2))

class EMM:

    def __init__(self,X,number_of_sources,iterations):
        self.iterations = iterations
        self.number_of_sources = number_of_sources
        self.X = X
        self.mu = None
        self.pi = None
        self.cov = None
        self.XY = None

    # Define a function which runs for i iterations:
    def run(self):
        self.reg_cov = 1e-6*np.identity(len(self.X[0]))
        x,y = np.meshgrid(np.sort(self.X[:,0]),np.sort(self.X[:,1]))
        self.XY = np.array([x.flatten(),y.flatten()]).T
        # 1. Set the initial mu, covariance and pi values
        self.mu = np.random.randint(min(self.X[:,0]),max(self.X[:,0]),size=(self.number_of_sources,len(self.X[0]))) # This is a nxm matrix since we assume n sources (n Gaussians) where each has m dimensions
        self.cov = np.zeros((self.number_of_sources,len(X[0]),len(X[0]))) # We need a nxmxm covariance matrix for each source since we have m features --> We create symmetric covariance matrices with ones on the digonal
        for dim in range(len(self.cov)):

        self.pi = np.ones(self.number_of_sources)/self.number_of_sources # Are "Fractions"
        log_likelihoods = [] # In this list we store the log likehoods per iteration and plot them in the end to check if
                             # if we have converged
        # Plot the initial state    
        fig = plt.figure(figsize=(10,10))
        ax0 = fig.add_subplot(111)
        for m,c in zip(self.mu,self.cov):
            c += self.reg_cov
            multi_normal = multivariate_normal(mean=m,cov=c)
        mu = []
        cov = []
        R = []
        for i in range(self.iterations):               
            # E Step
            r_ic = np.zeros((len(self.X),len(self.cov)))

            for m,co,p,r in zip(self.mu,self.cov,self.pi,range(len(r_ic[0]))):
                mn = multivariate_normal(mean=m,cov=co)
                r_ic[:,r] = p*mn.pdf(self.X)/np.sum([pi_c*multivariate_normal(mean=mu_c,cov=cov_c).pdf(X) for pi_c,mu_c,cov_c in zip(self.pi,self.mu,self.cov+self.reg_cov)],axis=0)

            # M Step

            # Calculate the new mean vector and new covariance matrices, based on the probable membership of the single x_i to classes c --> r_ic
            self.mu = []
            self.cov = []
            self.pi = []
            log_likelihood = []

            for c in range(len(r_ic[0])):
                m_c = np.sum(r_ic[:,c],axis=0)
                mu_c = (1/m_c)*np.sum(self.X*r_ic[:,c].reshape(len(self.X),1),axis=0)

                # Calculate the covariance matrix per source based on the new mean
                # Calculate pi_new which is the "fraction of points" respectively the fraction of the probability assigned to each source 

            # Log likelihood
            log_likelihoods.append(np.log(np.sum([k*multivariate_normal(self.mu[i],self.cov[j]).pdf(X) for k,i,j in zip(self.pi,range(len(self.mu)),range(len(self.cov)))])))


        fig2 = plt.figure(figsize=(10,10))
        ax1 = fig2.add_subplot(111) 
        for r in np.array(R[-1]):
    def predict(self):
        # PLot the point onto the fittet gaussians
        fig3 = plt.figure(figsize=(10,10))
        ax2 = fig3.add_subplot(111)
        for m,c in zip(self.mu,self.cov):
            multi_normal = multivariate_normal(mean=m,cov=c)

EMM = EMM(X,3,100)     

Recall that this problem did not arise in the case of a single Gaussian distribution. To understand the difference, note that if a single Gaussian collapses onto a data point it will contribute multiplicative factors to the likelihood function arising from the other data points and these factors will go to zero exponentially fast, giving an overall likelihood that goes to zero rather than infinity.

I'm also kinda confused by this part, and here's my interpretation. Take 1D case for simplicity.

When a single Gaussian "collapses" on a data point $x_i$, i.e., $\mu=x_i$, the overall likelihood becomes:

$$p(\mathbf{x}) = p(x_i) p(\mathbf{x}\setminus{i}) = (\frac{1}{\sqrt{2\pi}\sigma}) (\prod_{n \neq i}^N \frac{1}{\sqrt{2\pi}\sigma} e^{-\frac{(x_n-\mu)^2}{2\sigma^2}} )$$

You see as $\sigma \to 0$, the term on the left $p(x_i) \to \infty$, which is like the pathological case in GMM, but the term on the right, which is the likelihood of other data points $p(\mathbf{x}\setminus{i})$, still contains terms like $e^{-\frac{(x_n-\mu)^2}{2\sigma^2}}$ which $\to 0$ exponentially fast as $\sigma \to 0$, so the overall effect on the likelihood is for it to go the zero.

The main point here is that when fitting a single Gaussian, all the data points have to share one set of parameters $\mu, \sigma$, unlike in the mixture case where one component can "focus" on one data point without penalty to the overall data likelihood.


Imho, all the answers miss a fundamental fact. If one looks at the parameter space for a Gaussian mixture model, this space is singular along the subspace where there are less than the full number of components in the mixture. That means that derivatives are automatically zero and typically the whole subspace will show up as a mle. More philosophically, the subspace of less than full rank covariances is the boundary of the parameter space and one should always be suspicious when the mle occurs on the boundary- it usually indicates that there is a bigger parameter space lurking around in which one can find the 'real' mle. There is a book called "Algebraic Statistics" by Drton, Sturmfeld, and Sullivant. This issue is discussed in that book in some detail. If you are really curious, you should look at that.

  • $\begingroup$ "it usually indicates that there is a bigger parameter space lurking around in which one can find the 'real' mle" - how does one use this knowledge? My estimates lie on the boundary of the parameter space => there's probably a "bigger" parameter space => what do I do with this knowledge? How to find (?) this parameter space? Or maybe find estimates in that "better" parameter space? $\endgroup$
    – ForceBru
    Commented Jan 31, 2022 at 14:34

For a single Gaussian, the mean may possibly equal one of the data points ($x_n$ for example) and then there is the following term in the likelihood function:

\begin{equation} {\cal N}(x_n|x_n,\sigma_j 1\!\!1)\rightarrow \lim_{\sigma_j\rightarrow x_n}\frac{1}{(2\pi)^{1/2}\sigma_j} \exp \left( -\frac{1}{\sigma_j}|x_n-\sigma_j|^2 \right)= \frac{1}{(2\pi)^{1/2}\sigma_j} \end{equation} The limit $\sigma_j\rightarrow 0$ is now clearly divergent since the argument of the exponential vanishes.

However for a data point $x_m$ different from the mean $\sigma_j$, we will have \begin{equation} {\cal N}(x_m|x_m,\sigma_j 1\!\!1)= \frac{1}{(2\pi)^{1/2}\sigma_j} \exp \left( -\frac{1}{\sigma_j}|x_m-\sigma_j|^2 \right) \end{equation} and now the argument of the exponential diverges (and is negative) in the limit $\sigma_j\rightarrow 0$. As a result the product of these two terms in the likelihood function will vanish.

  • $\begingroup$ This answer is incorrect as there is no reason to identify mean $\mu_j$ and standard deviation $\sigma_j$. $\endgroup$
    – Xi'an
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 7:20

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