In Andrew Ng's machine learning course, he uses this formula:

$\nabla_A tr(ABA^TC) = CAB + C^TAB^T$

and he does a quick proof which is shown below:

$\nabla_A tr(ABA^TC) \\ = \nabla_A tr(f(A)A^TC) \\ = \nabla_{\circ} tr(f(\circ)A^TC) + \nabla_{\circ}tr(f(A)\circ^T C)\\ =(A^TC)^Tf'(\circ) + (\nabla_{\circ^T}tr(f(A)\circ^T C)^T \\ = C^TAB^T + (\nabla_{\circ^T}tr(\circ^T)Cf(A))^T \\ =C^TAB^T + ((Cf(A))^T)^T \\ = C^TAB^T + CAB$

The proof seems very dense without any comments and I'm having trouble understanding it. What exactly happened from second to third equality?

  • $\begingroup$ He must be making special assumptions about the dimensions of $A$, $B$, and $C$, for otherwise this formula makes no sense in general. On the left hand side $A$ must be an $i\times j$ matrix, $B$ a $j\times j$ matrix, and $C$ an $i\times m$ matrix for arbitrary non-negative integers $i,j,m$. But then the products on the right would not be defined unless $i=m$. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Jan 22, 2017 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ @whuber I see. Given the assumptions, I still don't understand how the transition happened from second to third line where he introduces $\circ$. $\endgroup$
    – MoneyBall
    Jan 22, 2017 at 17:18
  • $\begingroup$ Between the second and third line he's let $f(A)=AB$. Between the second and third line he's used the product rule. later he uses the chain rule to get rid of $f()$. $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2017 at 23:37

2 Answers 2


There is a subtle but heavy abuse of the notation that renders many of the steps confusing. Let's address this issue by going back to the definitions of matrix multiplication, transposition, traces, and derivatives. For those wishing to omit the explanations, just jump to the last section "Putting It All Together" to see how short and simple a rigorous demonstration can be.

Notation and Concepts


For the expression $ABA^\prime C$ to make sense when $A$ is an $m\times n$ matrix, $B$ must be a (square) $n\times n$ matrix and $C$ must be an $m\times p$ matrix, whence the product is an $m\times p$ matrix. In order to take the trace (which is the sum of diagonal elements, $\operatorname{Tr}(X)=\sum_i X_{ii}$), then $p=m$, making $C$ a square matrix.


The notation "$\nabla_A$" appears to refer to the derivative of an expression with respect to $A$. Ordinarily, differentiation is an operation performed on functions $f:\mathbb{R}^N\to\mathbb{R}^M$. The derivative at a point $x\in \mathbb{R}^N$ is a linear transformation $Df(x):\mathbb{R}^N\to\mathbb{R}^M$. Upon choosing bases for these vector spaces, such a transformation can be represented as an $M\times N$ matrix. That is not the case here!

Matrices as vectors

Instead, $A$ is being considered as an element of $\mathbb{R}^{mn}$: its coefficients are being unrolled (usually either row by row or column by column) into a vector of length $N=mn$. The function $f(A)=\operatorname{Tr}(ABA^\prime C)$ has real values, whence $M=1$. Consequently, $Df(x)$ must be a $1\times mn$ matrix: it's a row vector representing a linear form on $\mathbb{R}^{mn}$. Howver, the calculations in the question use a different way of representing linear forms: their coefficients are rolled back up into $m\times n$ matrices.

The trace as a linear form

Let $\omega$ be a constant $m\times n$ matrix. Then, by definition of the trace and of matrix multiplication,

$$\eqalign{ \operatorname{Tr}(A\omega^\prime) &= \sum_{i=1}^m(A\omega^\prime)_{ii} = \sum_{i=1}^m\left(\sum_{j=1}^n A_{ij}(\omega^\prime)_{ji}\right) = \sum_{i,j} \omega_{ij}A_{ij} }$$

This expresses the most general possible linear combination of the coefficients of $A$: $\omega$ is a matrix of the same shape as $A$ and its coefficient in row $i$ and column $j$ is the coefficient of $A_{ij}$ in the linear combination. Because $\omega_{ij}A_{ij}=A_{ij}\omega_{ij}$, the roles of $\omega$ and $A$ may switched, giving the equivalent expression

$$\sum_{i,j} \omega_{ij}A_{ij} = \operatorname{Tr}(A\omega^\prime) = \operatorname{Tr}(\omega A^\prime).\tag{1}$$

By identifying a constant matrix $\omega$ with either of the functions $A\to \operatorname{Tr}(A \omega^\prime)$ or $A\to \operatorname{Tr}(\omega A^\prime)$, we may represent linear forms on the space of $m\times n$ matrices as $m\times n$ matrices. (Do not confuse these with derivatives of functions from $\mathbb{R}^n$ to $\mathbb{R}^m$!)

Computing a Derivative

The definition

Derivatives of many of the matrix functions encountered in statistics are most easily and reliably computed from the definition: you don't really need to resort to complicated rules of matrix differentiation. This definition says that $f$ is differentiable at $x$ if and only if there is a linear transformation $L$ such that

$$f(x+h) - f(x) = Lh + o(|h|)$$

for arbitrarily small displacements $h\in \mathbb{R}^N$. The little-oh notation means that the error made in approximating the difference $f(x+h)-f(x)$ by $Lh$ is arbitrarily smaller than the size of $h$ for sufficiently small $h$. In particular, we may always ignore errors that are proportional to $|h|^2$.

The calculation

Let's apply the definition to the function in question. Multiplying, expanding, and ignoring the term with a product of two $h$'s in it,

$$\eqalign{ f(A+h)-f(A) &= \operatorname{Tr}((A+h)B(A+h)^\prime C) - \operatorname{Tr}(ABA^\prime C) \\ &= \operatorname{Tr}(hBA^\prime C) +\operatorname{Tr}(ABh^\prime C) + o(|h|).\tag{2} }$$

To identify the derivative $L=Df(A)$, we must get this into the form $(1)$. The first term on the right is already in this form, with $\omega^\prime = BA^\prime C$. The other term on the right has the form $\operatorname{Tr}(Xh^\prime C)$ for $X=AB$. Let's write this out:

$$\operatorname{Tr}(Xh^\prime C) = \sum_{i=1}^m\sum_{j=1}^n\sum_{k=1}^m X_{ij} h_{kj} C_{ki} = \sum_{i,j,k}h_{kj} \left(C_{ki}X_{ij}\right) =\operatorname{Tr}((CX)h^\prime).\tag{3}$$

Recalling $X=AB$, $(2)$ can be rewritten

$$f(A+h) - f(A) = \operatorname{Tr}(h\, BA^\prime C\,) + \operatorname{Tr}(CAB\, h^\prime\,)+o(|h|).$$

It is in this sense that we may consider the derivative of $f$ at $A$ to be $$Df(A) = (BA^\prime C)^\prime + CAB = C^\prime A B^\prime + CAB,$$ because these matrices play the roles of $\omega$ in the trace formulas $(1)$.

Putting It All Together

Here, then, is a complete solution.

Let $A$ be an $m\times n$ matrix, $B$ an $n\times n$ matrix, and $C$ an $m\times m$ matrix. Let $f(A) = \operatorname{Tr}(ABA^\prime C)$. Let $h$ be an $m\times n$ matrix with arbitrarily small coefficients. Because (by identity $(3)$) $$\eqalign{f(A+h) - f(A) &= \operatorname{Tr}(hBA^\prime C) +\operatorname{Tr}(ABh^\prime C) + o(|h|) \\ &=\operatorname{Tr}(h(C^\prime A B^\prime)^\prime + (CAB)h^\prime) + o(|h|),}$$ $f$ is differentiable and its derivative is the linear form determined by the matrix $$C^\prime A B^\prime + CAB.$$

Because this takes only about half the work and involves only the most basic manipulations of matrices and traces (multiplication and transposition), it has to be considered a simpler--and arguably more perspicuous--demonstration of the result. If you really want to understand the individual steps in the original demonstration, you might find it fruitful to compare them to the calculations shown here.

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    $\begingroup$ It's helpful to know that in general, $\mbox{tr}(ABC)=\mbox{tr}(CAB)$ whenever the matrices are of compatible sizes. Knowing this make (3) a trivial step. $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2017 at 23:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Amoeba I can't tell whether you are trying to be humorous or not. Neither the question nor the answer have anything directly to do with partial derivatives. The form $(1)$ explicitly is a linear form defined on the vector space $\operatorname{Mat}(m,n)$ of $m\times n$ real matrices. When somebody claims that the derivative of a function $f:\operatorname{Mat}(m,n)\to\mathbb{R}$ at a point $A$ equals some matrix $\omega$, what they mean is that $Df(A)$ is the linear form given by $X:\to\operatorname{Tr}(X\omega^{\,\prime})$. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Jan 23, 2017 at 22:29
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    $\begingroup$ Ah yes, of course, thanks. Upon re-reading your answer now, I can see how everything fits together, even though I still feel that "because these matrices play the roles of $\omega$ in the trace formulas (1)" could use some additional explanation. But together with the discussion in the comments it should be clear enough. $\endgroup$
    – amoeba
    Jan 24, 2017 at 19:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Amoeba That's exactly right--it amply justifies the assertions in the first line of this answer. It is why I wrote "in this sense" and, later in the summary, used the phrase "determined by" rather than "equals." I won't deny that the explanation has been challenging; I'll think about how to clarify it and I appreciate all your comments and suggestions. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Jan 24, 2017 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ @user10324 Christensen's Plane Answers to Complex Questions is precise and widely appreciated. It uses a traditional tensor-style, "debauch of indices" notation. For a "coordinate-free" approach, which is closer to the ideas underlying my answer here, Christensen recommends Eaton, M. L. (1983). Multivariate Statistics: A Vector Space Approach (John Wiley and Sons, New York. Reprinted in 2007 by IMS Lecture Notes – Monograph Series.) I have not seen Eaton's book. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Jan 25, 2017 at 19:03

There are some special matrix notations in machine learning community, which are implicit by experts but often confuse new practitioners. Some of such notations are described briefly in page 698 of "Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning" by Christopher M. Bishop. So, your life will be easier if you are familiar with that page.

If we have a scalar function (e.g., trace) of a matrix, $f(\mathbf A)$, where $\mathbf A=(A_{ij})$, you can take derivative with regard to element $A_{ij}$: $$\frac{\partial f(\mathbf A)}{\partial A_{ij}}.$$

This is well defined in any calculus text. But in machine learning community, people assembly these simple derivatives into a matrix, or "write this result more compactly" as said by Bishop's book: $$\frac{\partial f(\mathbf A)}{\partial\mathbf A}=\left(\frac{\partial f(\mathbf A)}{\partial A_{ij}}\right).$$ People who knows Matrix calculus would recall that this is a so-called denominator layout notation. But as that wikipage says, machine learning community does not follow a single layout for different derivative types. So, it is wise to figure out what layout the author is following before assuming something. At least Andrew Ng is following denominator layout notation for scalar-by-matrix derivatives.

Let me start by citing simple product rule of derivative $$\bigl(f(x)g(x)\bigr)'=f'(x)\color{green}{g(x)}+\color{green}{f(x)}g'(x).$$ This rule means that by taking derivative, a single product becomes a sum of two products, with one factor being further derived but another factor being considered a constant which I marked in a relieving color of green.

Now let's think of trace of the product of two matrices. Here the two matrices are general; their product does not have to be square. Yes, this is the way things are in machine learning community. Trace is the sum of leading diagonal, but unsquared matrices have no problem having a leading diagonal (see here).

Now let's think that the elements of the above two matrices are all functions of $A_{ij}$, and next take derivative of the trace of the multiplication of two matrices w.r.t. $A_{ij}$. Only one summand of the trace is involved, right? That single summand comes from one row of the left matrix and one column of the right matrix, again a sum of products, right? Each summand of such a sum has a form of $f(A_{ij})g(A_{ij})$, so if we take the derivative, it splits into a sum of two products: $$f'(A_{ij})\color{green}{g(A_{ij})}+\color{green}{f(A_{ij})}g'(A_{ij}),$$ where the green part is considered a constant.

Now let's expand the above to matrix form because the same thing happens for all $A_{ij}$'s. We have $$\eqalign{ \frac{\partial\operatorname{Tr}\bigl(f(\mathbf A)g(\mathbf A)\bigr)}{\partial\mathbf A}&=\operatorname{Tr}\bigl(\frac{f(\mathbf A)}{\partial\mathbf A}\color{green}{g(\mathbf A)}+\color{green}{f(\mathbf A)}\frac{\partial g(\mathbf A)}{\partial\mathbf A}\bigr)\\ &=\frac{\partial\operatorname{Tr}\bigl(f(\mathbf A)\color{green}{g(\mathbf A)}\bigr)}{\partial\mathbf A}+\frac{\partial\operatorname{Tr}\bigl(\color{green}{f(\mathbf A)}g(\mathbf A)\bigr)}{\partial\mathbf A}, }$$ where the green parts at the right hand are regarded as constant matrix. Here I used the fact $\operatorname{Tr}(\mathbf A_1+\mathbf A_2)=\operatorname{Tr}\mathbf A_1+\operatorname{Tr}\mathbf A_2$ and linearity of derivative so $\partial\mathbf A$ can penetrate $\operatorname{Tr}$. This step requires some math thinking capability. I hope you can get through it.

Plugging $f(\mathbf A)=\mathbf A\mathbf B$ and $g(\mathbf A)=\mathbf A^T\mathbf C$, we get the second equation. The circle $\circ$ represents matrix $\mathbf A$ in Andrew Ng's derivation. The following derivation is easier because of established identities in page 698 of Bishop's book.

Now we have that the original derivative is equal to $$\frac{\partial}{\partial\mathbf A}\operatorname{Tr}(\mathbf A\mathbf B\color{green}{\mathbf A^T\mathbf C})+\frac{\partial}{\partial\mathbf A}\operatorname{Tr}(\color{green}{\mathbf A\mathbf B}\mathbf A^T\mathbf C).$$ Since matrix $\mathbf B$ and $\mathbf C$ are constant too w.r.t. elements $A_{ij}$ and hence w.r.t. matrix $\mathbf A$, we color them in green as well: $$\frac{\partial}{\partial\mathbf A}\operatorname{Tr}(\mathbf A\color{green}{\mathbf B\mathbf A^T\mathbf C})+\frac{\partial}{\partial\mathbf A}\operatorname{Tr}(\color{green}{\mathbf A\mathbf B}\mathbf A^T\color{green}{\mathbf C}).\tag{1}$$

Now we advance to the third equality of Andrew Ng's derivation of derivative. The first term of the above result (1) turns into $(\color{green}{\mathbf B\mathbf A^T\mathbf C})^T=\mathbf C^T\mathbf A\mathbf B^T$, according to identity (C.24) in page 698 of Bishop's book: $$\frac{\partial}{\partial\mathbf A}\operatorname{Tr}(\mathbf A\color{green}{\mathbf B})=\color{green}{\mathbf B}^T.\tag{C.24}$$ Now you should know why I tirelessly mark constant matrix as green. The first term in the third equation of Andrew Ng's derivation is confusing in that he missed the trace. I am really a bit tired at this point. Take a break of typing, but you keep on reading.

The second term contains a transpose of $\mathbf A$. We want to take the derivative w.r.t. this transpose $\mathbf A^T$ to take advantage of identity (C.24). To that end, remember we use denominator layout to arrange partial derivatives in the resulting derivative matrix. If the variable matrix is $\mathbf A^T$, the denominator layout will result in nothing but a transpose of the matrix $\frac{\partial}{\partial\mathbf A}$. So, we have $$\frac{\partial}{\partial\mathbf A^T}\operatorname{Tr}(\color{green}{\mathbf A\mathbf B}\mathbf A^T\color{green}{\mathbf C})=\left(\frac{\partial}{\partial\mathbf A}(\color{green}{\mathbf A\mathbf B}\mathbf A^T\color{green}{\mathbf C})\right)^T,$$ which leads to the second term of the third equality.

In order to derive $\frac{\partial}{\partial\mathbf A^T}\operatorname{Tr}(\color{green}{\mathbf A\mathbf B}\mathbf A^T\color{green}{\mathbf C})$ based on identity (C.24) where the variable matrix is the left matrix of the multiplication, we apply the cyclic property of trace to deduce $\operatorname{Tr}(\color{green}{\mathbf A\mathbf B}\mathbf A^T\color{green}{\mathbf C})=\operatorname{Tr}(\mathbf A^T\color{green}{\mathbf C\mathbf A\mathbf B}).$ In the second term of the fourth equality, Andrew Ng wrote $Cf(A)$ out of the $\operatorname{Tr}$ operator. I think that's a typo.

Now it is easy to apply Bishop's identity (C.24) to obtain $$\eqalign{ \frac{\partial}{\partial\mathbf A}\operatorname{Tr}(\color{green}{\mathbf A\mathbf B}\mathbf A^T\color{green}{\mathbf C}) &=\left(\frac{\partial}{\partial\mathbf A^T}\operatorname{Tr}(\color{green}{\mathbf A\mathbf B}\mathbf A^T\color{green}{\mathbf C})\right)^T\\ &=\left(\frac{\partial}{\partial\mathbf A^T}\operatorname{Tr}(\mathbf A^T\color{green}{\mathbf C\mathbf A\mathbf B})\right)^T\\ &=\bigl((\color{green}{\mathbf C\mathbf A\mathbf B})^T\bigr)^T\\ &=\mathbf C\mathbf A\mathbf B.}$$

We have proved that the first term of (1) equals $\mathbf C^T\mathbf A\mathbf B^T$. Above we get the second term $\mathbf C\mathbf A\mathbf B$. Now we can conclude the whole proof by combining them as the final result of the derivative: $\mathbf C^T\mathbf A\mathbf B^T+\mathbf C\mathbf A\mathbf B$.

  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps because you tired before the end, you dropped half of the answer. As a check, let all the matrices be $1\times 1,$ so that $ABA^\prime C=(BC)A^2.$ Obviously its derivative with respect to $A$ is $2(BC)A.$ Your formula gets only half of that... . $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Jul 6, 2022 at 17:12
  • $\begingroup$ @whuber ♦: I did drop something, something that has been written in page 698 of "Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning" by Christopher M. Bishop. But I cannot see the relation of your comment to that page. I don't know either which "half" part that my formula failed to get. I would be glad to fill that half if you can please be more specific. $\endgroup$
    – zzzhhh
    Jul 6, 2022 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ @whuber ♦: I think I guessed out what you mean by "half". Do you think I only proved the second term to be equal to $\mathbf C\mathbf A\mathbf B$? The first term being equal to $\mathbf C^T\mathbf A\mathbf B^T$ is proved before. Since it is just a simple application of Bishop's identity (C.24) (set $\mathbf B$ in (C.24) to be $\mathbf B\mathbf A^T\mathbf C$ in the first term), I did not talk too much about it. Now I add some equation numbers to make it clear that I have proved this half. Please let me know if I missed something else. $\endgroup$
    – zzzhhh
    Jul 6, 2022 at 21:41
  • $\begingroup$ Your equations are confusing, because they still explicitly assert incorrect results, right down to the very end where your equations state, unequivocally, that the derivative is $CAB.$ It is not, as you remark at the end--but writing one thing in math and writing something else in English is no way to communicate! It would also help to quote identity (C.24): few readers will have ready access to that book. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Jul 6, 2022 at 23:08

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