What Is a Multiset Data Structure in Python?


Heather Bennett

A multiset data structure, also known as a bag, is a collection of elements that allows duplicate values. Unlike a set, which only stores unique elements, a multiset can store multiple occurrences of the same element. In Python, this data structure is implemented using the collections.Counter class from the collections module.

Creating a Multiset

To create a multiset in Python, you can use the Counter() function from the collections module. This function takes an iterable as an argument and returns a dictionary-like object that represents the multiset.

from collections import Counter

# Creating a multiset
my_multiset = Counter([1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3])

The output will be:

Counter({3: 3, 2: 2, 1: 1})

In this example, we created a multiset with multiple occurrences of the numbers 1, 2, and 3. The output shows the elements as keys and their respective counts as values in the form of a dictionary.

Accessing Elements in a Multiset

You can access individual elements in a multiset by using indexing or iteration. Since it is similar to a dictionary object, you can access the count of each element using square brackets:

print(my_multiset[3]) # Output: 3
print(my_multiset[4]) # Output: 0 (if element not present)

In this example, we accessed the count of element ‘3’ in our multiset. If an element is not present in the multiset, it will return 0 as the count.

You can also iterate over the multiset using a for loop:

for element in my_multiset:
    print(element, my_multiset[element])

This will print each element and its count on a separate line.

Modifying a Multiset

A multiset allows you to add or remove elements just like any other collection in Python. You can use the update() method to add elements to an existing multiset:

my_multiset.update([3, 4, 5])
Counter({3: 4, 2: 2, 1: 1, 4: 1, 5: 1})

In this example, we added three new elements (3, 4, and 5) to our existing multiset. The update() method increases the count of existing elements and adds new elements if they are not present.

To remove elements from a multiset, you can use the subtract() method:

Counter({3: 3, 2: 2, 1: 1, 4: 1, 5: 1})

In this example, we decreased the count of element ‘3’ by one. If the count becomes zero or negative after subtraction, the element is removed from the multiset.

Operations on Multisets

The collections.Counter class provides several useful operations for multisets, such as:

  • most_common(): Returns a list of the n most common elements and their counts in the multiset.
  • elements(): Returns an iterator over the elements in the multiset, taking into account their counts.
  • union(): Returns the union of two multisets by taking the maximum count of each element.
  • intersection(): Returns the intersection of two multisets by taking the minimum count of each element.

You can explore these operations and more in the Python documentation for collections.Counter.


A multiset data structure is a useful tool when you need to keep track of multiple occurrences of elements in your program. Python’s collections.Counter class provides a convenient way to work with multisets, offering various operations to manipulate and retrieve information from them.

With this knowledge, you can now leverage multiset data structures in your Python programs to solve problems that involve counting or tracking occurrences of elements.

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