In mathematics, a dense graph is a graph in which the number of edges is close to the maximal number of edges. The opposite, a graph with only a few edges, is a sparse graph. The distinction between sparse and dense graphs is rather vague, and depends on the context.
For undirected simple graphs, the graph density is defined as:
D
=
2

E


V

(

V

−
1
)
For directed simple graphs, the graph density is defined as:
D
=

E


V

(

V

−
1
)
where E is the number of edges and V is the number of vertices in the graph. The maximum number of edges for an undirected graph is ½ V (V−1), so the maximal density is 1 (for complete graphs) and the minimal density is 0 (Coleman & Moré 1983).
Upper density is an extension of the concept of graph density defined above from finite graphs to infinite graphs. Intuitively, an infinite graph has arbitrarily large finite subgraphs with any density less than its upper density, and does not have arbitrarily large finite subgraphs with density greater than its upper density. Formally, the upper density of a graph G is the infimum of the values α such that the finite subgraphs of G with density α have a bounded number of vertices. It can be shown using the Erdős–Stone theorem that the upper density can only be 1 or one of the superparticular ratios 0, 1/2, 2/3, 3/4, 4/5, ... n/(n + 1), ... (see, e.g., Diestel, p. 189).
Lee & Streinu (2008) and Streinu & Theran (2009) define a graph as being (k,l)sparse if every nonempty subgraph with n vertices has at most kn − l edges, and (k,l)tight if it is (k,l)sparse and has exactly kn − l edges. Thus trees are exactly the (1,1)tight graphs, forests are exactly the (1,1)sparse graphs, and graphs with arboricity k are exactly the (k,k)sparse graphs. Pseudoforests are exactly the (1,0)sparse graphs, and the Laman graphs arising in rigidity theory are exactly the (2,3)tight graphs.
Other graph families not characterized by their sparsity can also be described in this way. For instance the facts that any planar graph with n vertices has at most 3n  6 edges, and that any subgraph of a planar graph is planar, together imply that the planar graphs are (3,6)sparse. However, not every (3,6)sparse graph is planar. Similarly, outerplanar graphs are (2,3)sparse and planar bipartite graphs are (2,4)sparse.
Streinu and Theran show that testing (k,l)sparsity may be performed in polynomial time when k and l are integers and 0 ≤ l < 2k.
For a graph family, the existence of k and l such that the graphs in the family are all (k,l)sparse is equivalent to the graphs in the family having bounded degeneracy or having bounded arboricity. More precisely, it follows from a result of NashWilliams (1964) that the graphs of arboricity at most a are exactly the (a,a)sparse graphs. Similarly, the graphs of degeneracy at most d are exactly the ((d + 1)/2,1)sparse graphs.
Nešetřil & Ossona de Mendez (2010) considered that the sparsity/density dichotomy makes it necessary to consider infinite graph classes instead of single graph instances. They defined somewhere dense graph classes as those classes of graphs for which there exists a threshold t such that every complete graph appears as a tsubdivision in a subgraph of a graph in the class. To the contrary, if such a threshold does not exist, the class is nowhere dense. Properties of the nowhere dense vs somewhere dense dichotomy are discussed in Nešetřil & Ossona de Mendez (2012).
The classes of graphs with bounded degeneracy and of nowhere dense graphs are both included in the bicliquefree graphs, graph families that exclude some complete bipartite graph as a subgraph (Telle & Villanger 2012).