The derivative of a function of a real variable measures the sensitivity to change of a quantity (a function value or dependent variable) which is determined by another quantity (the independent variable). Derivatives are a fundamental tool of calculus. For example, the derivative of the position of a moving object with respect to time is the object’s velocity: this measures how quickly the position of the object changes when time is advanced.
The derivative of a function of a single variable at a chosen input value, when it exists, is the slope of the tangent line to the graph of the function at that point. The tangent line is the best linear approximation of the function near that input value. For this reason, the derivative is often described as the “instantaneous rate of change”, the ratio of the instantaneous change in the dependent variable to that of the independent variable.
Derivatives may be generalized to functions of several real variables. In this generalization, the derivative is reinterpreted as a linear transformation whose graph is (after an appropriate translation) the best linear approximation to the graph of the original function. The Jacobian matrix is the matrix that represents this linear transformation with respect to the basis given by the choice of independent and dependent variables. It can be calculated in terms of the partial derivatives with respect to the independent variables. For a real-valued function of several variables, the Jacobian matrix reduces to the gradient vector.