Practical Business Python

Taking care of business, one python script at a time

Mon 14 October 2019

Binning Data with Pandas qcut and cut

Posted by Chris Moffitt in articles   

article header image


When dealing with continuous numeric data, it is often helpful to bin the data into multiple buckets for further analysis. There are several different terms for binning including bucketing, discrete binning, discretization or quantization. Pandas supports these approaches using the cut and qcut functions. This article will briefly describe why you may want to bin your data and how to use the pandas functions to convert continuous data to a set of discrete buckets. Like many pandas functions, cut and qcut may seem simple but there is a lot of capability packed into those functions. Even for more experience users, I think you will learn a couple of tricks that will be useful for your own analysis.


One of the most common instances of binning is done behind the scenes for you when creating a histogram. The histogram below of customer sales data, shows how a continuous set of sales numbers can be divided into discrete bins (for example: $60,000 - $70,000) and then used to group and count account instances.

Here is the code that show how we summarize 2018 Sales information for a group of customers. This representation illustrates the number of customers that have sales within certain ranges. Sample code is included in this notebook if you would like to follow along.

import pandas as pd
import numpy as np
import seaborn as sns


raw_df = pd.read_excel('2018_Sales_Total.xlsx')
df = raw_df.groupby(['account number', 'name'])['ext price'].sum().reset_index()

df['ext price'].plot(kind='hist')
Image compare

There are many other scenarios where you may want to define your own bins. In the example above, there are 8 bins with data. What if we wanted to divide our customers into 3, 4 or 5 groupings? That’s where pandas qcut and cut come into play. These functions sound similar and perform similar binning functions but have differences that might be confusing to new users. They also have several options that can make them very useful for day to day analysis. The rest of the article will show what their differences are and how to use them.


The pandas documentation describes qcut as a “Quantile-based discretization function.” This basically means that qcut tries to divide up the underlying data into equal sized bins. The function defines the bins using percentiles based on the distribution of the data, not the actual numeric edges of the bins.

If you have used the pandas describe function, you have already seen an example of the underlying concepts represented by qcut :

df['ext price'].describe()
count        20.000000
mean     101711.287500
std       27037.449673
min       55733.050000
25%       89137.707500
50%      100271.535000
75%      110132.552500
max      184793.700000
Name: ext price, dtype: float64

Keep in mind the values for the 25%, 50% and 75% percentiles as we look at using qcut directly.

The simplest use of qcut is to define the number of quantiles and let pandas figure out how to divide up the data. In the example below, we tell pandas to create 4 equal sized groupings of the data.

pd.qcut(df['ext price'], q=4)
0     (55733.049000000006, 89137.708]
1             (89137.708, 100271.535]
2     (55733.049000000006, 89137.708]
17             (110132.552, 184793.7]
18           (100271.535, 110132.552]
19           (100271.535, 110132.552]
Name: ext price, dtype: category
Categories (4, interval[float64]): [(55733.049000000006, 89137.708] < (89137.708, 100271.535] < (100271.535, 110132.552] < (110132.552, 184793.7]]

The result is a categorical series representing the sales bins. Because we asked for quantiles with q=4 the bins match the percentiles from the describe function.

A common use case is to store the bin results back in the original dataframe for future analysis. For this example, we will create 4 bins (aka quartiles) and 10 bins (aka deciles) and store the results back in the original dataframe:

df['quantile_ex_1'] = pd.qcut(df['ext price'], q=4)
df['quantile_ex_2'] = pd.qcut(df['ext price'], q=10, precision=0)

account number name ext price quantile_ex_1 quantile_ex_2
0 141962 Herman LLC 63626.03 (55733.049000000006, 89137.708] (55732.0, 76471.0]
1 146832 Kiehn-Spinka 99608.77 (89137.708, 100271.535] (95908.0, 100272.0]
2 163416 Purdy-Kunde 77898.21 (55733.049000000006, 89137.708] (76471.0, 87168.0]
3 218895 Kulas Inc 137351.96 (110132.552, 184793.7] (124778.0, 184794.0]
4 239344 Stokes LLC 91535.92 (89137.708, 100271.535] (90686.0, 95908.0]

You can see how the bins are very different between quantile_ex_1 and quantile_ex_2 . I also introduced the use of precision to define how many decimal points to use for calculating the bin precision.

The other interesting view is to see how the values are distributed across the bins using value_counts :

(110132.552, 184793.7]             5
(100271.535, 110132.552]           5
(89137.708, 100271.535]            5
(55733.049000000006, 89137.708]    5
Name: quantile_ex_1, dtype: int64

Now, for the second column:

(124778.0, 184794.0]    2
(112290.0, 124778.0]    2
(105938.0, 112290.0]    2
(103606.0, 105938.0]    2
(100272.0, 103606.0]    2
(95908.0, 100272.0]     2
(90686.0, 95908.0]      2
(87168.0, 90686.0]      2
(76471.0, 87168.0]      2
(55732.0, 76471.0]      2
Name: quantile_ex_2, dtype: int64

This illustrates a key concept. In each case, there are an equal number of observations in each bin. Pandas does the math behind the scenes to figure out how wide to make each bin. For instance, in quantile_ex_1 the range of the first bin is 74,661.15 while the second bin is only 9,861.02 (110132 - 100271).

One of the challenges with this approach is that the bin labels are not very easy to explain to an end user. For instance, if we wanted to divide our customers into 5 groups (aka quintiles) like an airline frequent flier approach, we can explicitly label the bins to make them easier to interpret.

bin_labels_5 = ['Bronze', 'Silver', 'Gold', 'Platinum', 'Diamond']
df['quantile_ex_3'] = pd.qcut(df['ext price'],
                              q=[0, .2, .4, .6, .8, 1],
account number name ext price quantile_ex_1 quantile_ex_2 quantile_ex_3
0 141962 Herman LLC 63626.03 (55733.049000000006, 89137.708] (55732.0, 76471.0] Bronze
1 146832 Kiehn-Spinka 99608.77 (89137.708, 100271.535] (95908.0, 100272.0] Gold
2 163416 Purdy-Kunde 77898.21 (55733.049000000006, 89137.708] (76471.0, 87168.0] Bronze
3 218895 Kulas Inc 137351.96 (110132.552, 184793.7] (124778.0, 184794.0] Diamond
4 239344 Stokes LLC 91535.92 (89137.708, 100271.535] (90686.0, 95908.0] Silver

In the example above, I did somethings a little differently. First, I explicitly defined the range of quantiles to use: q=[0, .2, .4, .6, .8, 1] . I also defined the labels labels=bin_labels_5 to use when representing the bins.

Let’s check the distribution:

Diamond     4
Platinum    4
Gold        4
Silver      4
Bronze      4
Name: quantile_ex_3, dtype: int64

As expected, we now have an equal distribution of customers across the 5 bins and the results are displayed in an easy to understand manner.

One important item to keep in mind when using qcut is that the quantiles must all be less than 1. Here are some examples of distributions. In most cases it’s simpler to just define q as an integer:

  • terciles: q=[0, 1/3, 2/3, 1] or q=3
  • quintiles: q=[0, .2, .4, .6, .8, 1] or q=5
  • sextiles: q=[0, 1/6, 1/3, .5, 2/3, 5/6, 1] or q=6

One question you might have is, how do I know what ranges are used to identify the different bins? You can use retbins=True to return the bin labels. Here’s a handy snippet of code to build a quick reference table:

results, bin_edges = pd.qcut(df['ext price'],
                            q=[0, .2, .4, .6, .8, 1],

results_table = pd.DataFrame(zip(bin_edges, bin_labels_5),
                            columns=['Threshold', 'Tier'])
Threshold Tier
0 55733.050 Bronze
1 87167.958 Silver
2 95908.156 Gold
3 103606.970 Platinum
4 112290.054 Diamond

Here is another trick that I learned while doing this article. If you try df.describe on categorical values, you get different summary results:

quantile_ex_1 quantile_ex_2 quantile_ex_3
count 20 20 20
unique 4 10 5
top (110132.552, 184793.7] (124778.0, 184794.0] Diamond
freq 5 2 4

I think this is useful and also a good summary of how qcut works.

While we are discussing describe we can using the percentiles argument to define our percentiles using the same format we used for qcut :

df.describe(percentiles=[0, 1/3, 2/3, 1])
account number ext price
count 20.000000 20.000000
mean 476998.750000 101711.287500
std 231499.208970 27037.449673
min 141962.000000 55733.050000
0% 141962.000000 55733.050000
33.3% 332759.333333 91241.493333
50% 476006.500000 100271.535000
66.7% 662511.000000 104178.580000
100% 786968.000000 184793.700000
max 786968.000000 184793.700000

There is one minor note about this functionality. Passing 0 or 1, just means that the 0% will be the same as the min and 100% will be same as the max. I also learned that the 50th percentile will always be included, regardless of the values passed.

Before we move on to describing cut , there is one more potential way that we can label our bins. Instead of the bin ranges or custom labels, we can return integers by passing labels=False

df['quantile_ex_4'] = pd.qcut(df['ext price'],
                            q=[0, .2, .4, .6, .8, 1],
account number name ext price quantile_ex_1 quantile_ex_2 quantile_ex_3 quantile_ex_4
0 141962 Herman LLC 63626.03 (55733.049000000006, 89137.708] (55732.0, 76471.0] Bronze 0
1 146832 Kiehn-Spinka 99608.77 (89137.708, 100271.535] (95908.0, 100272.0] Gold 2
2 163416 Purdy-Kunde 77898.21 (55733.049000000006, 89137.708] (76471.0, 87168.0] Bronze 0
3 218895 Kulas Inc 137351.96 (110132.552, 184793.7] (124778.0, 184794.0] Diamond 4
4 239344 Stokes LLC 91535.92 (89137.708, 100271.535] (90686.0, 95908.0] Silver 1

Personally, I think using bin_labels is the most useful scenario but there could be cases where the integer response might be helpful so I wanted to explicitly point it out.


Now that we have discussed how to use qcut , we can show how cut is different. Many of the concepts we discussed above apply but there are a couple of differences with the usage of cut .

The major distinction is that qcut will calculate the size of each bin in order to make sure the distribution of data in the bins is equal. In other words, all bins will have (roughly) the same number of observations but the bin range will vary.

On the other hand, cut is used to specifically define the bin edges. There is no guarantee about the distribution of items in each bin. In fact, you can define bins in such a way that no items are included in a bin or nearly all items are in a single bin.

In real world examples, bins may be defined by business rules. For a frequent flier program, 25,000 miles is the silver level and that does not vary based on year to year variation of the data. If we want to define the bin edges (25,000 - 50,000, etc) we would use cut . We can also use cut to define bins that are of constant size and let pandas figure out how to define those bin edges.

Some examples should make this distinction clear.

For the sake of simplicity, I am removing the previous columns to keep the examples short:

df = df.drop(columns = ['quantile_ex_1','quantile_ex_2', 'quantile_ex_3', 'quantile_ex_4'])

For the first example, we can cut the data into 4 equal bin sizes. Pandas will perform the math behind the scenes to determine how to divide the data set into these 4 groups:

pd.cut(df['ext price'], bins=4)
0       (55603.989, 87998.212]
1      (87998.212, 120263.375]
2       (55603.989, 87998.212]
3     (120263.375, 152528.538]
4      (87998.212, 120263.375]
14     (87998.212, 120263.375]
15    (120263.375, 152528.538]
16     (87998.212, 120263.375]
17     (87998.212, 120263.375]
18     (87998.212, 120263.375]
19     (87998.212, 120263.375]
Name: ext price, dtype: category
Categories (4, interval[float64]): [(55603.989, 87998.212] < (87998.212, 120263.375] < (120263.375, 152528.538] < (152528.538, 184793.7]]

Let’s look at the distribution:

pd.cut(df['ext price'], bins=4).value_counts()
(87998.212, 120263.375]     12
(55603.989, 87998.212]       5
(120263.375, 152528.538]     2
(152528.538, 184793.7]       1
Name: ext price, dtype: int64

The first thing you’ll notice is that the bin ranges are all about 32,265 but that the distribution of bin elements is not equal. The bins have a distribution of 12, 5, 2 and 1 item(s) in each bin. In a nutshell, that is the essential difference between cut and qcut .

If you want equal distribution of the items in your bins, use qcut . If you want to define your own numeric bin ranges, then use cut .

Before going any further, I wanted to give a quick refresher on interval notation. In the examples above, there have been liberal use of ()’s and []’s to denote how the bin edges are defined. For those of you (like me) that might need a refresher on interval notation, I found this simple site very easy to understand.

To bring this home to our example, here is a diagram based off the example above:

Interval notation

When using cut, you may be defining the exact edges of your bins so it is important to understand if the edges include the values or not. Depending on the data set and specific use case, this may or may not be a big issue. It can certainly be a subtle issue you do need to consider.

To bring it into perspective, when you present the results of your analysis to others, you will need to be clear whether an account with 70,000 in sales is a silver or gold customer.

Here is an example where we want to specifically define the boundaries of our 4 bins by defining the bins parameter.

cut_labels_4 = ['silver', 'gold', 'platinum', 'diamond']
cut_bins = [0, 70000, 100000, 130000, 200000]
df['cut_ex1'] = pd.cut(df['ext price'], bins=cut_bins, labels=cut_labels_4)
account number name ext price cut_ex1
0 141962 Herman LLC 63626.03 silver
1 146832 Kiehn-Spinka 99608.77 gold
2 163416 Purdy-Kunde 77898.21 gold
3 218895 Kulas Inc 137351.96 diamond
4 239344 Stokes LLC 91535.92 gold

One of the challenges with defining the bin ranges with cut is that it can be cumbersome to create the list of all the bin ranges. There are a couple of shortcuts we can use to compactly create the ranges we need.

First, we can use numpy.linspace to create an equally spaced range:

pd.cut(df['ext price'], bins=np.linspace(0, 200000, 9))
0       (50000.0, 75000.0]
1      (75000.0, 100000.0]
2      (75000.0, 100000.0]
18    (100000.0, 125000.0]
19    (100000.0, 125000.0]
Name: ext price, dtype: category
Categories (8, interval[float64]): [(0.0, 25000.0] < (25000.0, 50000.0] < (50000.0, 75000.0] < (75000.0, 100000.0]
< (100000.0, 125000.0] < (125000.0, 150000.0] < (150000.0, 175000.0] < (175000.0, 200000.0]]

Numpy’s linspace is a simple function that provides an array of evenly spaced numbers over a user defined range. In this example, we want 9 evenly spaced cut points between 0 and 200,000. Astute readers may notice that we have 9 numbers but only 8 categories. If you map out the actual categories, it should make sense why we ended up with 8 categories between 0 and 200,000. In all instances, there is one less category than the number of cut points.

The other option is to use numpy.arange which offers similar functionality. I found this article a helpful guide in understanding both functions. I recommend trying both approaches and seeing which one works best for your needs.

There is one additional option for defining your bins and that is using pandas interval_range . I had to look at the pandas documentation to figure out this one. It is a bit esoteric but I think it is good to include it.

The interval_range offers a lot of flexibility. For instance, it can be used on date ranges as well numerical values. Here is a numeric example:

pd.interval_range(start=0, freq=10000, end=200000, closed='left')
IntervalIndex([[0, 10000), [10000, 20000), [20000, 30000), [30000, 40000), [40000, 50000) ... [150000, 160000),
[160000, 170000), [170000, 180000), [180000, 190000), [190000, 200000)],

There is a downside to using interval_range . You can not define custom labels.

interval_range = pd.interval_range(start=0, freq=10000, end=200000)
df['cut_ex2'] = pd.cut(df['ext price'], bins=interval_range, labels=[1,2,3])
account number name ext price cut_ex1 cut_ex2
0 141962 Herman LLC 63626.03 gold (60000, 70000]
1 146832 Kiehn-Spinka 99608.77 silver (90000, 100000]
2 163416 Purdy-Kunde 77898.21 silver (70000, 80000]
3 218895 Kulas Inc 137351.96 diamond (130000, 140000]
4 239344 Stokes LLC 91535.92 silver (90000, 100000]

As shown above, the labels parameter is ignored when using the interval_range .

In my experience, I use a custom list of bin ranges or linspace if I have a large number of bins.

One of the differences between cut and qcut is that you can also use the include_lowest paramete to define whether or not the first bin should include all of the lowest values. Finally, passing right=False will alter the bins to exclude the right most item. Because cut allows much more specificity of the bins, these parameters can be useful to make sure the intervals are defined in the manner you expect.

The rest of the cut functionality is similar to qcut . We can return the bins using retbins=True or adjust the precision using the precision argument.

One final trick I want to cover is that value_counts includes a shortcut for binning and counting the data. It is somewhat analogous to the way describe can be a shortcut for qcut .

If we want to bin a value into 4 bins and count the number of occurences:

df['ext price'].value_counts(bins=4, sort=False)
(55603.988000000005, 87998.212]     5
(87998.212, 120263.375]            12
(120263.375, 152528.538]            2
(152528.538, 184793.7]              1
Name: ext price, dtype: int64

By defeault value_counts will sort with the highest value first. By passing sort=False the bins will be sorted by numeric order which can be a helpful view.


The concept of breaking continuous values into discrete bins is relatively straightforward to understand and is a useful concept in real world analysis. Fortunately, pandas provides the cut and qcut functions to make this as simple or complex as you need it to be. I hope this article proves useful in understanding these pandas functions. Please feel free to comment below if you have any questions.


  • 29-October-2019: Modified to include value_counts shortcut for binning and counting the data.


Photo by Radek Grzybowski on Unsplash