Composition in object-oriented programming

In computer science, object composition (not to be confused with function composition) is a way to combine simple objects or data types into more complex ones. Compositions are a critical building block of many basic data structures, including the tagged union, the linked list, and the binary tree, as well as the object used in object-oriented programming.

A real-world example of composition may be seen in the relation of an automobile to its parts, specifically: the automobile 'has or is composed from' objects including steering wheel, seat, gearbox and engine.

When, in a language, objects are typed, types can often be divided into composite and noncomposite types, and composition can be regarded as a relationship between types: an object of a composite type (e.g. car) "has an" object of a simpler type (e.g. wheel).

Composition must be distinguished from subtyping, which is the process of adding detail to a general data type to create a more specific data type. For instance, cars may be a specific type of vehicle: car is a vehicle. Subtyping doesn't describe a relationship between different objects, but instead, says that objects of a type are simultaneously objects of another type.

In programming languages, composite objects are usually expressed by means of references from one object to another; depending on the language, such references may be known as fields, members, properties or attributes, and the resulting composition as a structure, storage record, tuple, user-defined type (UDT), or composite type. Fields are given a unique name so that each one can be distinguished from the others. However, having such references doesn't necessarily mean that an object is a composite. It is only called composite if the objects it refers to are really its parts, i.e. have no independent existence. For details, see the aggregation section below.

UML notation

In UML, there are two ways of modelling composition: Composition and aggregation. Beware that in UML composition has a more narrow meaning than in ordinary language:

Composition is depicted as a filled diamond and a solid line.

Composition is a kind of association where the composite object has sole responsibility for the disposition of the component parts. The relationship between the composite and the component is a strong “has a” relationship, as the composite object takes ownership of the component. This means the composite is responsible for the creation and destruction of the component parts. An object may only be part of one composite. If the composite object is destroyed, all the component parts must be destroyed. The part has no life of itself and cannot be transferred to another object. Composition enforces encapsulation as the component parts usually are members of the composite object.

The more general form, aggregation, is depicted as an unfilled diamond and a solid line.

Aggregation is a kind of association that specifies a whole/part relationship between the aggregate (whole) and component part. This relationship between the aggregate and component is a weak “has a” relationship as the component may survive the aggregate object. The component object may be accessed through other objects without going through the aggregate object. The aggregate object does not take part in the lifecycle of the component object, meaning the component object may outlive the aggregate object. The state of the component object still forms part of the aggregate object.

The image below shows both composition and aggregation. (Note that that the examples shows data models. A real world carburetor -> car association is an UML aggregation, not an UML composition, otherwise there wouldn't be any market for spare parts). The C++ code below shows what the source code is likely to look like.


// Composition
class Car
    // Car is the owner of carburetor.
    // Carburetor is created when Car is created,
    // it is destroyed when Car is destroyed.
    Carburetor carb;
// Aggregation
class Pond
   std::vector ducks;

Composite types in C

This is an example of composition in C.

typedef struct
 int age;
 char *name;
 enum { male, female } sex;
} Person;

In this example, the primitive types int, char *, and enum {male, female} are combined to form the composite type of Person. Each object of type Person then "has an" age, name, and sex.

If a Person type were instead created by subtyping, it might be a subtype of Organism, and it could inherit some attributes from Organism (every organism has an age), while extending the definition of Organism with new attributes (not every organism has a gender, but every person does).

Recursive composition

Objects can be composited recursively with the use of recursive types or references. Consider a tree. Each node in a tree may be a branch or leaf; in other words, each node is a tree at the same time when it belongs to another tree.

One implementation for the recursive composition is to let each object have references to others of the same type. In C, for example, a binary tree can be defined like:

struct bintree
 struct bintree *left, *right;
 // some data

If pointers left and right are valid, the node is thought to be a branch referring to each tree to which left and right point. If not, the node is a leaf. In this way, the recursion can be terminated.

Another is to use a tagged union. For e.g. see tagged union.

Timeline of composition in various languages

C calls a record a struct or structure; object-oriented languages such as Java, Smalltalk, and C++ often keep their records hidden inside objects (class instances); languages in the ML family simply call them records. COBOL was the first programming language to support records directly; ALGOL 68 got it from COBOL and Pascal got it, more or less indirectly, from ALGOL 68. Common Lisp provides structures and classes (the latter via the Common Lisp Object System).

1959 – COBOL
01 customer-record.
 03 customer-number pic 9(8) comp.
 03 customer-name.
 05 given-names pic x(15).
 05 initial-2 pic x.
 05 surname pic x(15).
 03 customer-address.
 05 street.
 07 house-number pic 999 comp.
 07 street-name pic x(15).
 05 city pic x(10).
 05 country-code pic x(3).
 05 postcode pic x(8).
 03 amount-owing pic 9(8) comp.
1960 – ALGOL 60

Arrays were the only composite data type in Algol 60.

1964 – PL/I
dcl 1 newtypet based (P);
 2 (a, b, c) fixed bin(31),
 2 (i, j, k) float,
 2 r ptr;
allocate newtypet;
1968 – ALGOL 68
int max = 99;
mode newtypet = [0..9] [0..max]struct (
 long real a, b, c, short int i, j, k, ref real r
newtypet newarrayt = (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, heap real := 7)

For an example of all this, here is the traditional linked list declaration:

mode node = union (real, int, compl, string),
 list = struct (node val, ref list next);

Note that for ALGOL 68 only the newtype name appears to the left of the equality, and most notably the construction is made – and can be read – from left to right without regard to priorities.

1970 – Pascal
 a = array [1..10] of integer;
 b = record
 a, b, c: real;
 i, j, k: integer;
1972 – K&R C
# define max 99
struct newtypet {
 double a, b, c;
 float r;
 short i, j, k;
} newarrayt[10] [max + 1];
1977 – FORTRAN 77

Fortran 77 has arrays, but lacked any formal record/structure definitions. Typically compound structures were built up using EQUIVALENCE or COMMON statements:

1983 – ADA
type Cust is
 Name : Name_Type;
 Addr : Addr_Type;
 Phone : Phone_Type;
 Owing : Integer range 1..999999;
 end record;
1983 – C++
const int max = 99;
 double a, b, c;
 float &r;
 short i, j, k;
}newtypet[10] [max + 1];
1991 – Python
max = 99
class NewTypeT:
        def __init__(self):
                self.a = self.b = self.c = 0
                self.i = self.j = self.k = 0.0
# Initialise an example array of this class.
newarrayt = [[NewTypeT() for i in range(max + 1)] for j in range(10)]
1992 – FORTRAN 90

Arrays and strings were inherited from FORTRAN 77, and a new reserved word was introduced: type

type newtypet
 double precision a, b, c
 integer*2 i, j, k
* No pointer type REF REAL R
 end type
type (newtypet) t(10, 100)

FORTRAN 90 updated and included FORTRAN IV's concept called NAMELIST.

INTEGER :: jan = 1, feb = 2, mar = 3, apr = 4
NAMELIST / week / jan, feb, mar, apr
1994 – ANSI Common Lisp

Common Lisp provides structures and the ANSI Common Lisp standard added CLOS classes.

(defclass some-class ()
 ((f :type float)
 (i :type integer)
 (a :type (array integer (10)))))

For more details about composition in C/C++, see Composite type.


Aggregation differs from ordinary composition in that it does not imply ownership. In composition, when the owning object is destroyed, so are the contained objects. In aggregation, this is not necessarily true. For example, a university owns various departments (e.g., chemistry), and each department has a number of professors. If the university closes, the departments will no longer exist, but the professors in those departments will continue to exist. Therefore, a University can be seen as a composition of departments, whereas departments have an aggregation of professors. In addition, a Professor could work in more than one department, but a department could not be part of more than one university.

Composition is usually implemented such that an object contains another object. For example, in C++:

class Professor;
class Department
 // Aggregation
 Professor* members[5];
class University
 std::vector< Department > faculty;
 // Composition (must limit to 20)
 faculty.push_back( Department(...) );
 faculty.push_back( Department(...) );

In aggregation, the object may only contain a reference or pointer to the object (and not have lifetime responsibility for it).

Sometimes aggregation is referred to as composition when the distinction between ordinary composition and aggregation is unimportant.

The above code would transform into the following UML Class diagram:


Composition that is used to store several instances of the composited data type is referred to as containment. Examples of such containers are arrays, linked lists, binary trees and associative arrays.

In UML, containment is depicted with a multiplicity of 1 or 0..n (depending on the issue of ownership), indicating that the data type is composed of an unknown number of instances of the composited data type.

Aggregation in COM

In Microsoft's Component Object Model aggregation means that an object exports, as if it were their owner, one or several interfaces of another object it owns. Formally, this is more similar to composition or encapsulation than aggregation. However, instead of implementing the exported interfaces by calling the interfaces of the owned object, the interfaces of the owned object themselves are exported. The owned object is responsible for assuring that methods of those interfaces inherited from IUnknown actually invoke the corresponding methods of the owner. This is to guarantee that the reference count of the owner is correct and all interfaces of the owner are accessible through the exported interface, while no other (private) interfaces of the owned object are accessible.[1]


General References:

  • Association, Aggregation and Composition, accessed in February 2009
  • Harald Störrle, UML2, Addison-Wesley 2005

See also

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.