Powered by MathJax
We use MathJax

Geometric Sequences

Once again, we consider the situation of a sequence described by a list of numbers. This time, however, our pattern will involve multiplication rather than addition.

Common Ratios and Geometric Sequences

Consider the sequence   $14, 42, 126, 378, 1134, \ldots$   After some thought, we might notice that each term is always a constant multiple of the previous term.  That is, the ratio of consecutive terms is a constant.  If we write the ratios in a row underneath the spaces between the terms, we obtain the following diagram.

\begin{equation*} \begin{array}{ccccccccc} 14, & \phantom. & 42, & \phantom. & 126, & \phantom. & 378, & \phantom. & 1134,\ldots \\ \phantom. & \times 3 & \phantom. & \times 3 & \phantom. & \times 3 & \phantom. & \times 3 & \phantom. \end{array} \end{equation*}

Whenever a term of a sequence is a constant multiple of the preceding term, the sequence is called a geometric sequence.  The ratio between consecutive terms is called the common ratio, and is often identified by the variable $r$.

In our specific example, the common ratio   $r=3$.   This pattern immediately implies that the recursive formula is   $a_n=3a_{n-1},\quad a_1=14$.   Furthermore, we see that the second term was produced by multiplying by one factor of three, the third term was produced by multiplying by two factors of three, and in general the $n$th term is produced by multiplying by a total of   $n-1$   factors of three.  Therefore, the explicit formula is   $a_n=14(3^{n-1})$.

graph of the sequence a sub n equals 3 times a sub n minus 1, a sub 1 equals 14

In general, the recursive formula of a geometric sequence always has the form   $a_n=r(a_{n-1})$,   and the explicit formula always has the form   $a_n=a_1 r^{n-1}$.   In particular, the explicit formula of a geometric sequence will always be exponential, as is implied in the graph above, and it will consist of a single term.

The geometric sequence is also used in a variety of applications.  Examples include:


Common differences and common ratios are the two easiest situations, and both arithmetic and geometric sequences have many practical applications.  If, however, there is neither a common difference nor a common ratio, it may be that a second row will contain a pattern.  See the page Recognizing More Patterns for more information.