→ Trig w/o Tears → 1/Introduction
Updated 17 Aug 2015

Trig without Tears Part 1:


revised 1 Jan 2016
Copyright © 1997–2016 Stan Brown,


About Trigonometry

Trigonometry is fascinating! It started as the measurement (Greek metron) of triangles (Greek trigonon), but now it has been formalized under the influence of algebra and analytic geometry and we talk of trigonometric functions. not just sides and angles of triangles.

Trig is almost the ideal math subject. Big and complex enough to have all sorts of interesting odd corners, it is still small and regular enough to be taught thoroughly in a semester. (You can master the essential points in a week or so.) It has lots of obvious practical uses, some of which are actually taught in the usual trig course. And trig extends plenty of tentacles into other fields like complex numbers, logarithms, and calculus.

If you’d like to learn some of the history of trigonometry and peer into its dark corners, I recommend Trigonometric Delights by Eli Maor (Princeton University Press, 1998).

The computations in trigonometry used to be a big obstacle. But now that we have calculators, that’s no longer an issue.

Would you believe that when I studied trig, back when dinosaurs ruled the earth (actually, in the 1960s), to solve any problem we had to look up function values in long tables in the back of the book, and then multiply or divide those five-place decimals by hand? The “better” books even included tables of logs of the trig functions, so that we could save work by adding and subtracting five-place decimals instead of multiplying and dividing them. My College Outline Series trig book covered all of plane and spherical trigonometry in 188 pages—but then needed an additional 138 pages for the necessary tables!

Though calculators have freed us from tedious computation, there’s still one big stumbling block in the way many trig courses are taught: all those identities. They’re just too much to memorize. (Many students despair of understanding what’s going on, so they just try to memorize everything and hope for the best at exam time.) Is it tan²A + sec²A = 1 or tan²A = sec²A + 1? (Actually, it’s neither—see equation 39!)

Fortunately, you don’t need to memorize them. This paper shows you the few that you do need to memorize, and how you can produce the others as needed. I’ll present some ideas of my own, and a wonderful insight by W.W. Sawyer.

About Trig without Tears

I wrote Trig without Tears to show that you need to memorize very little. Instead, you learn how all the pieces of trigonometry hang together, and you get used to combining identities in different ways so that you can derive most results on the fly in just a couple of steps.

You might like to read some ideas of mine on the pros and cons of memorizing.

To help you find things, I’ll number the most important equations and other facts. (Don’t worry about the gaps in the numbering. I’ve left those to make it easier to add information to these pages.)

A very few of those, which you need to memorize, will be marked “memorize:”. Please don’t memorize the others. The whole point of Trig without Tears is to teach you how to derive them as needed without memorizing them. If you can’t think how to derive one, the boxes should make it easy to find it. But then please work through the explanation. I truly believe that if you once thoroughly understand how all these identities hang together, you’ll never have to memorize them again. (It’s worked for me since I first studied trig in 1965.)

This is rather a long document for reading on screen. If you prefer, you might want to print the printer-friendly version.

Bonus Topics

By the way, I love explaining things but sometimes I go on a bit too long. So I’ve put some interesting but nonessential notes in a separate page and inserted hyperlinks to them at appropriate points. If you follow them (and I hope you will), use your browser’s “back” command to return to the main text.

Much as it pains me to say so, if you’re pressed for time you can still get all the essential points by ignoring those side notes. But you’ll miss some of the fun.

What You Won’t Find Here

Trig without Tears concerns itself exclusively with plane trigonometry, which is what’s taught today in nearly every first course. Spherical trigonometry is not dealt with.

I’m also restricting myself to real arguments to the functions and real values of the functions. I have to draw the line somewhere! (I do use real-valued functions with the polar form of complex numbers in the Notes.) For complex trigonometric functions, see chapter 14 of Eli Maor’s Trigonometric delights (Princeton University Press, 1998).

In Trig without Tears we’ll work with identities and solve triangles. A separate (and much shorter) page of mine explains how to solve trigonometric equations.


I’ve made some compromises since many common math characters can’t be displayed in a standard way:

Interval Notation

In talking about the domains and ranges of functions, it is handy to use interval notation. Thus instead of saying that x is between 0 and π, we can use the open interval (0;π) if the endpoints are not included, or the closed interval [0;π] if the endpoints are included.

You can also have a half-open interval. For instance, the interval [0;2π) is all numbers ≥ 0 and < 2π. You could also say it’s the interval from 0 (inclusive) to 2π (exclusive).

Degrees and Radians

These pages will show examples with both radians and degrees. The same theorems apply to either way of measuring an angle, and you need to practice with both.

A lot of students seem to find radians terrifying. But measuring angles in degrees and radians is no worse than measuring temperature in °F and °C. In fact, angle measure is easier because 0°F and 0°C are not the same temperature, but 0° and 0 radians are the same angle.

Just remember that a complete circle is 2π radians, and therefore half a circle is π radians:

π radians (or just π) = 180°

You can convert between degrees and radians exactly the same way you convert between inches and feet, or between centimeters and meters. (If conversions in general are a problem for you, you might like to consult my page on that topic.)

But even though you can convert between degrees and radians, it’s probably better to learn to think in both. Here’s an analogy.

When you learn a foreign language L, you go through a stage where you mentally translate what someone says in L into your own language, formulate your answer in your own language, mentally translate it into L, and then speak. Eventually you get past that stage, and you carry on a conversation in the other language without translating. Not only is it more fun, it’s a heck of a lot faster and easier.

You want to train yourself to work with radians for the same reason: it’s more efficient, and saving work is always good. Practice visualizing an angle of π/6 or 3π/4 or 5π/3 directly, without translating to degrees. You’ll be surprised how quickly it will become second nature!

One easy way to visualize the special angles in radians is to think of the twelve hours numbered around the circumference of a clock face. When the hour hand goes all the way around, it travels through 2π radians. Six hours is 2π/2 = π, one hour is π/6, two hours is 2π/6 = π/3, and so on. (Thanks are due to Jeffrey T. Birt for this suggestion.)

next:  2/Six Functions

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