Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Representing a heap
  3. Constructing a heap
  4. Extracting the minimum
  5. References


Heaps are a data structure for supporting the priority queue operations insert and extract-min. Heaps maintain a partial order of elements that is weaker than sorted order, but stronger than random order [1, P. 109].

A heap is represented as a tree. A heap-labelled tree is a binary tree where the key labelling of each node dominates each of its children. In a min-heap, a node dominates its children by holding a smaller key than its children. In a max-heap tree, a node dominates its children by holding a larger key than its children [1, P. 110].

In a min-heap tree, the root node is always the node with the lowest value.

Representing a heap

A heap can be represented as an array, rather than using pointers like a typical binary tree. The position of the keys in the array is used to determine the position of the key in the tree [1, P. 110].

The root of the tree is the first position in the array. Its left and right sub children are stored at position 2 and 3 respectively [1, P. 110].

Figure: A min-heap with its representation as an array [1, P. 110]

the 2^l keys of the lth level will be stored at 2^l−1 to 2^l - 1 respectively [1, P. 110].

Note: The index starts at index 1 to simplify calculations.

A heap can be represented as a structure with an array and a number value:

typedef struct {
  item_type q[PQ_SIZE+1];
  int n;
} priority_queue;

[1, P. 110]

The good thing about this format is that the position of the children at a key position k can be worked out easily. The left child of k sits at 2k, the right at 2k + 1. The parent of k holds position n/2:

int pq_parent(int n) {
  if (n == 1) {
    return -1;
  } else {
    return n / 2;

int pq_young_child(int n) {
  return(2 * n);

[1, P. 111]

Constructing a heap

Heaps can be built by inserting each element into the left-most open spot in the array (n + 1). this ensures a tree remains balanced, but it does not guarantee the dominance order of the keys [1, P. 112].

The solution for ensuring a dominance relation is to swap any unsatisfied element with its parent. The other child is still dominated, because the new parent’s value is even higher/ lower than the previous element’s value [1, P. 112].

The new element might still dominate its new parent after being moved. To ensure that it doesn’t, the same process is followed with the element and its new parent. This process bubbles up until the element is satisfied [1, P. 112].

void pq_insert(priority_queue *q, item_type x) {
  if (q->n >= PQ_SIZE) {
    printf("Warning: priority queue overflow insert x=%d\n", x);
  } else {
    q->n = (q->n) + 1;
    q->q[q->n] = x;
    bubble_up(q, q->n);

void bubble_up(priority_queue *q, int p) {
  if (pq_parent(p) == -1) {
    return; /* at root of heap, no parent */
  if (q->q[pq_parent(p)] > q->q[p]) {
    bubble_up(q, pq_parent(p));

[1, P. 112]

The swap takes constant time at each level. Since the height of a heap is log n, the max insert will take O(log n). In other words, a heap of n elements can be constructed in O(nlog n) time:

void make_heap(priority_queue *q, item_type s[], int n) {
  int i;

  q->n = 0;

  for (i = 0; i < n; i++) {
    pq_insert(q, s[i]);

[1, P. 113]

Extracting the minimum

In a min-heap, the minimum element is always at the top of the heap [1, P. 113].

Removing an element requires rearranging the heap. The hole can be filled by moving the rightmost leaf (in the nth position of the array) into the first position [1, P. 113].

After moving the rightmost element, the labelling of the nodes might be incorrect. If the new root is dominant, then the heap is maintained. If not, the dominant child of the root should be swapped with the root. This process bubbles down until either the element either dominates all its children, or the end of the heap is reached [1, P. 113].

int item_type extract_min(priority_queue *q) {
  int min = -1; /* minimum value */

  if (q->n <= 0) {
    printf("Warning: empty priority queue.\n");
  } else {
    min = q->q[1];
    q->q[1] = q->q[q->n];
    q->n = q->n - 1;
    bubble_down(q, 1);

void bubble_down(priority_queue *q, int p) {
  int c;
  int min_index;

  c = pq_young_child(p);
  min_index = p;

  for (int i = 0; i <= 1; i++) {
    if ((c + i) <= q->n) {
      if (q->q[min_index] > q->q[c + i]) {
        min_index = c + i;

  if (min_index != p) {
    pq_swap(q, p, min_index);
    bubble_down(q, min_index);

[1, P. 113]

This process takes in the worst case O(log n).


  1. [1] S. Skiena, The Algorithm Design Manual, 2nd ed. Springer, 2008.