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How to Generate Random Numbers for Different Probability Distributions in MATLAB

October 06, 2023
Dr. Sarah Mitchell
Dr. Sarah Mitchell
United States of America
Probability Distributions
Dr. Sarah Mitchell is a highly accomplished expert in the field of computational mathematics and MATLAB programming. She has knowledge and experience in the world of MATLAB assignments and probability simulations.

Random numbers are a fundamental component of various scientific and engineering applications, including statistical simulations, data analysis, and experimental research. MATLAB, a powerful computational tool widely used in universities, offers several functions to generate random numbers and samples from various probability distributions. In this blog post, we will delve into the concept of random number generation in MATLAB and provide a comprehensive understanding of how to generate samples from different probability distributions using MATLAB functions. This theoretical discussion aims to assist university students in tackling assignments related to random number generation and probability distribution sampling without getting into complex code or intricate mathematical formulas. If you need help to complete your Probability Distributions assignment using MATLAB, this post can serve as a valuable resource.

Concept of Random Number Generation

Random numbers play a crucial role in many areas of science and engineering. They are used to simulate uncertain or stochastic processes, conduct statistical experiments, and solve various computational problems. In MATLAB, random numbers are generated using pseudo-random number generators (PRNGs). These PRNGs produce sequences of numbers that appear random but are determined by an initial seed value. Understanding the concept of random number generation involves grasping the following key points:

Random Numbers for Different Probability Distributions in MATLAB

Pseudo-Random Number Generators (PRNGs)

Pseudo-random number generators (PRNGs) are algorithms used to generate sequences of numbers that appear to be random but are, in fact, deterministic. These algorithms mimic true randomness by starting with an initial value known as the seed. Once the seed is set, the PRNG follows a predefined set of mathematical operations to produce a sequence of numbers that seems unpredictable.

  • Deterministic Nature: PRNGs are deterministic because they produce the same sequence of numbers when initialized with the same seed value. This determinism is advantageous for debugging and reproducibility in research because it ensures that the same set of random numbers can be generated consistently.
  • Applications: PRNGs have widespread applications in various fields, including computer science, statistics, and simulations. They are used for tasks such as Monte Carlo simulations, random sampling, cryptography, and procedural content generation in video games.
  • MATLAB PRNGs: MATLAB employs various PRNG algorithms to generate random numbers. These algorithms have different properties and characteristics, so students should be aware of which PRNG they are using for their assignments. Two common PRNGs in MATLAB are the Mersenne Twister and the default MATLAB generator. Each has its strengths and limitations, making them suitable for different types of applications.

Seed Value

The seed value is a critical parameter in PRNGs. It serves as the starting point for the PRNG algorithm to generate the sequence of numbers. When you provide a specific seed value to a PRNG, it ensures that the sequence of random numbers generated is reproducible. In other words, using the same seed value will yield the same sequence of random numbers every time the PRNG is initialized.

  • Reproducibility: The ability to reproduce the same sequence of random numbers is crucial in research, debugging, and sharing results with others. It ensures that experiments and simulations can be precisely replicated, leading to more reliable and verifiable outcomes.
  • Random-Looking Variability: Despite being deterministic, PRNGs create sequences that appear to exhibit the unpredictability and randomness associated with true random processes. This makes them suitable for a wide range of applications where random inputs are required.

Uniform Random Numbers

In MATLAB, by default, random numbers are generated from a uniform distribution in the range [0, 1]. This means that any number within this interval has an equal chance of being generated. Uniform random numbers are evenly distributed across the specified range and are commonly used in various applications.

  • Equal Probability: One of the key characteristics of uniform random numbers is that each value within the specified range has an equal probability of being chosen. This property makes them ideal for simulating events where all outcomes are equally likely.
  • Applications: Uniform random numbers are employed in statistical simulations, random sampling, Monte Carlo methods, and modeling scenarios where random events are involved. They provide a basis for generating random inputs in a wide range of computational and mathematical applications.

Understanding PRNGs, seed values, and uniform random numbers is fundamental in MATLAB for tasks involving random number generation. PRNGs enable the generation of seemingly random sequences, while seed values ensure reproducibility. Meanwhile, uniform random numbers, generated by default in MATLAB, offer a reliable and evenly distributed source of randomness, suitable for various scientific and engineering simulations and experiments. This knowledge equips university students with the foundational concepts needed to work with random numbers in MATLAB effectively.

Generating Uniform Random Numbers

Uniform random numbers are those that can take any value within a specified range, and each value within that range has an equal likelihood of being chosen. In MATLAB, you can generate such numbers using the rand function. This function produces floating-point numbers that are uniformly distributed between 0 and 1 by default.

To control the size and shape of the random number array, you can specify the dimensions as arguments to the rand function. For example, if you need a 3x4 matrix of random numbers, you would use rand(3, 4).

This capability to generate uniform random numbers is valuable in various applications, such as statistical simulations, where you need random inputs with equal probability across a defined range.

Generating Random Integers

In some situations, you may require random integers rather than floating-point numbers. MATLAB offers the randi function for this purpose. The randi function allows you to specify both the range and the size of the random integers you want to generate.

Here's how it works: Let's say you need random integers between 1 and 100. You can achieve this by using the randi function with the range specified as [1, 100]. Additionally, you can control the dimensions of the resulting array, just like with the rand function. For example, randi([1, 100], 3, 4) would generate a 3x4 matrix of random integers between 1 and 100. Generating random integers is particularly useful in scenarios like modeling discrete events or selecting random samples from a finite set of values.

MATLAB provides convenient tools for generating random numbers and random integers. The rand function generates uniform random numbers that can be used in various applications, while the randi function allows you to produce random integers within specified ranges and dimensions. These capabilities are foundational in statistical simulations, data analysis, and many other fields where randomness is a crucial component of the analysis or modeling process.

Generating Samples from Probability Distributions

In addition to generating uniform random numbers, MATLAB offers functions to sample from various probability distributions, which are essential for statistical analysis and modeling. Let's explore how to generate samples from common probability distributions:

Normal Distribution

The normal distribution, also known as the Gaussian distribution, is one of the most common probability distributions encountered in statistics. It is characterized by its bell-shaped curve and is widely used to model natural phenomena and many real-world data sets. In MATLAB, you can generate random numbers following a normal distribution using the randn function.

Key Points:

  • Mean and Standard Deviation: The normal distribution is defined by two parameters: the mean (μ) and the standard deviation (σ). The mean represents the center of the distribution, while the standard deviation controls the spread or dispersion of the data. By default, randn generates random numbers from a standard normal distribution with μ = 0 and σ = 1.
  • Adjusting Parameters: MATLAB allows you to adjust the mean and standard deviation as needed for your specific application. For example, if you want to generate random numbers from a normal distribution with μ = 5 and σ = 2, you can use mu + sigma * randn(size) where mu is 5, sigma is 2, and size specifies the dimensions of the random number array.

Uniform Distribution

The uniform distribution is one of the simplest probability distributions, and it is often used when all outcomes within a given range are equally likely. In MATLAB, you can generate random numbers following a uniform distribution using the rand function.

Key Points:

  • Lower and Upper Bounds: To generate random numbers from a uniform distribution, you need to specify the lower and upper bounds of the range within which the random numbers should fall. For example, rand(1, 100) generates random numbers between 1 and 100.
  • Uniformity: Each value within the specified range has an equal probability of being generated, making this distribution useful for simulating events with equal likelihood.

Exponential Distribution

The exponential distribution is commonly used to model the time between events in a Poisson process, where events occur at a constant average rate over time. It is characterized by its memoryless property, which means that the probability of an event occurring in the next time interval does not depend on how much time has already passed. In MATLAB, you can generate random numbers following an exponential distribution using the exprnd function.

Key Points:

  • Rate Parameter: The exponential distribution is determined by a single parameter known as the rate parameter (λ). This parameter controls the average rate of events. The larger the λ, the shorter the expected time between events.
  • Applications: The exponential distribution is commonly used in reliability engineering, queuing theory, and survival analysis, where modeling the time to failure or the time between events is crucial.

Poisson Distribution

The Poisson distribution is used to model the number of events occurring in a fixed interval of time or space, given that events occur at a constant average rate. It is particularly useful for counting the occurrences of rare events. In MATLAB, you can generate random numbers following a Poisson distribution using the poissrnd function.

Key Points:

  • Mean Parameter: The Poisson distribution is characterized by a single parameter, often denoted as λ, which represents the average rate of events occurring in the given interval. The distribution is discrete, and random values generated from it represent counts of events.
  • Applications: The Poisson distribution finds applications in various fields, including epidemiology, physics, and telecommunications, where the counting of rare events is essential.

Custom Distributions

Sometimes, real-world scenarios require modeling with probability distributions that are not standard, such as specific types of non-parametric distributions or custom distributions tailored to your research needs. MATLAB provides the flexibility to define and work with custom probability distribution functions using the makedist and random functions.

Key Points:

  • Customization: With makedist, you can create a custom probability distribution object by specifying the probability density function (PDF) or probability mass function (PMF) of your distribution. This allows you to tailor the distribution to your data.
  • Sampling: After creating a custom distribution object, you can use the random function to sample random numbers from your custom distribution. This enables you to work with specialized distributions that are not part of MATLAB's built-in functions.

MATLAB offers a versatile set of tools for generating random numbers from various probability distributions, from the commonly used normal and uniform distributions to more specialized distributions like exponential and Poisson. Additionally, MATLAB's flexibility allows researchers and students to work with custom distributions, empowering them to model and analyze data that may not fit standard distributions. Understanding these concepts and functions is invaluable for university students working on assignments involving statistical simulations and data analysis.


In conclusion, understanding random number generation in MATLAB is essential for university students working on assignments involving probability simulations and statistical analysis. In this theoretical discussion, we explored the concept of random number generation using pseudo-random number generators and seed values. We also covered the generation of uniform random numbers and random integers in MATLAB.

Furthermore, we discussed how to generate samples from various probability distributions, including the normal, uniform, exponential, and Poisson distributions. MATLAB's built-in functions simplify the process of sampling from these distributions, making it easier for students to apply statistical concepts to real-world problems.

By mastering these fundamentals, university students can confidently tackle assignments that involve random number generation and probability distribution sampling in MATLAB, enhancing their analytical and computational skills in various academic disciplines.

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