Lambda expressions in Kotlin

In this blog post we will learn about Kotlin lambda expressions and how they are compiled to JVM bytecode.

Basic syntax

To create lambda expression that just prints Hello, world! we write:

val printHelloWorld = {
   println("Hello, world!")

We may invoke this function using either syntax:

// or

The former is idiomatic and should be used in your code.

When we need to create a lambda that takes parameters we use syntax:

val sayHello = { user: String -> 
   println("Hello, $user!") 
// or with multiple parameters
val printSummary = { user: String, score: Int -> 
   println("User '$user' get $score points.")
printSummary("johnny", 123)

When types of parameters may be inferred from the context we may skip them as in:

val names = arrayOf("joe", "ann", "molly", "dolly")
names.sortedBy { name -> name.length }
// equivalent to
names.sortedBy { name: String -> name.length }

When working with Kotlin Sequence library you often need to define short function literals (another name for a lambda expression) that take only one parameter, for example:

val russianNames = arrayOf("Maksim", "Artem", "Sophia", "Maria", "Maksim")

val selectedName = russianNames
      .filter { name -> name.startsWith("m", ignoreCase = true) }
      .sortedBy { name -> name.length }

For this special case Kotlin provides a shortcut, instead of writing:

.filter { name -> name.startsWith("m", ignoreCase = true) }
// we may write
.filter { it.startsWith("m", ignoreCase = true) }

Notice that we skipped parameter declaration altogether and use it keyword to access parameter value. If we rewrite our earlier example to use this new feature we get not only shorter but also much more clearer code:

val selectedName = russianNames
      .filter { it.startsWith("m", ignoreCase = true) }
      .sortedBy { it.length }

Function literals in Kotlin always return a value. By default value of the last expression in a lambda body is returned, for example:

val produceValue = { "foo" }
println(produceValue()) // prints "foo"

val max = { a: Int, b: Int ->
  if (a > b)
println(max(10,4)) // prints "10"

Sometimes we want to return early from a lambda body, in this case we must follow “return-at-label” syntax:

val doStuff = lambda@ { stopEarly: Boolean ->
   println("line 1")
   if (stopEarly) return@lambda
   println("line 2")


First we tag lambda expression with label lambda@. You may use any name you like but label must ends with @ character (called ‘at’ character). Then inside lambda body to signify return we use return keyword followed by label name. There must be no whitespace between return and label name.

Since “return-at-label” syntax is a bit cumbersome, we may use alternative approach. Instead of using a lambda expression we may use an anonymous function:

val doStuff = fun(stopEarly: Boolean) {
   println("line 1")
   if (stopEarly) return
   println("line 2")

Inside anonymous function return works like in any other Kotlin function. Anonymous functions can also be used in cases when we must specify return type of lambda explicitly:

val returnAny = {
   "foo" as Any

val returnAny2 = 
   fun(): Any = "foo"

Sometimes you do not need a value of particular lambda parameter, in this case to avoid mistakes you may replace parameter name with _. For example:

   .map { _ -> rand.nextInt(100) }
   .forEach { println(it) }
Function types

Kotlin provides succinct syntax for specifying function types, for example () -> Unit is type of a function that doesn’t take any parameters and returns nothing, and (Int) -> Int is type of a function that takes single parameter of type Int and returns value of type Int. Here are more examples:

val fun1: (Int,Int)->Int = 
   { a,b -> Math.max(a,b) }

val fun2: (String,MutableList<String>)->Unit =
   { s,list -> list.add(s) }

val fun3: (Int,(Int)->Int)->Int = 
   { value, func -> func(value) }

I believe that fun1 and fun2 declarations needs no explanation. When it comes to fun3 it is a higher level function, it returns an integer and takes two arguments, an integer and a function that takes an integer and returns an integer.

When we use function types we may also provide names for parameters, this further improves clarity of code:

val sin: (angleInRadians: Double) -> Double =

In the example above I used method reference Math::sin, this is equivalent to { x -> Math.sin(x) }.

Type aliases

Since repeating function types may be tiring and error prone, we should use Kotlin type aliases to give them meaningful names.

typealias IntToStringConverter = 
   (Int) -> String

typealias StringListAppender = 

Now we may use aliases instead of repeating types in our declarations, e.g.

val fun2: StringListAppender =
   { s,list -> list.add(s) }

The last cool thing about type aliases is that they can use generic parameters. This allows us to easily create types like:

typealias Predicate<T> = (T) -> Boolean
typealias Converter<FROM,TO> = (FROM) -> TO

Kotlin lambda expressions may be passed as arguments and returned from functions. This allows us to apply many techniques from functional programming. For example:

typealias Counter = ()->Int

fun counter(initValue: Int): Counter {
    var n = initValue
    return { n++ }

fun main(args: Array<String>) {
    val c1 = counter(100)

    println(c1()) // 100
    println(c1()) // 101
    println(c1()) // 102

Yet best feature of Kotlin lambdas in comparison to Java 8 lambdas is support of true closures - using simple words this is a language feature that allows lambda expression to access and modify all variables that are in scope of their declarations. Java 8 lambdas can only access external variables but cannot modify them, this may be quite limiting when we try to use functional programming in Java.

Following program demonstrates how closures work in Kotlin:

fun main(args: Array<String>) {
    var sum = 0
    (1..10).forEach { sum += it }

Here we see that { sum += it } lambda can access and modify sum variable that is declared outside of lambda body.


Now you may be wondering how lambda expressions are translated to JVM bytecode. In Kotlin every lambda is compiled to a small class. For example simple expression that doesn’t use any variables:

val printHelloWorld = {
    println("Hello, world!")

Is compiled to:

final class AppKt$main$printHelloWorld$1 
        extends Lambda implements Function0 {
    public static final AppKt$main$printHelloWorld$1 INSTANCE = 
        new AppKt$main$printHelloWorld$1();

    AppKt$main$printHelloWorld$1() {
        super(/*arity:*/ 0);

    public final void invoke() {
        // actual body of lambda expression
        String var1 = "Hello, world!";

This class was generated by Kotlin compiler and uses types form Kotlin runtime to provide its functionality. In particular it extends Lambda abstract class. Lambda constructor takes single parameter that specify function arity - a number of parameters that lambda expression takes. Lambda also implements Function and FunctionBase interfaces, and provides simple toString() implementation that prints function type - in our case () -> kotlin.Unit. For your convinience here are simplified definitions of the above types:

// from Kotlin runtime (kotlin.* packages)
public interface Function { }

public interface FunctionBase extends Function, Serializable {
   int getArity();

public abstract class Lambda implements FunctionBase {
   private final int arity;

   public Lambda(int arity) {
      this.arity = arity;

   public int getArity() {
      return this.arity;

   public String toString() {
      return Reflection.renderLambdaToString(this);

Classes generated for lambda expressions also implement FunctionN interfaces, where N is lambda arity. Again FunctionN interfaces are provided by Kotlin runtime:

public interface Function0 extends Function {
   Object invoke();

public interface Function1 extends Function {
   Object invoke(Object var1);

public interface Function2 extends Function {
   Object invoke(Object var1, Object var2);

// Kotlin runtime contains FunctionN defintions
// up to N=22

Now lets take a look at how lambda expressions are invoked, following code:


Is translated into:

Function0 printHelloWorld = (Function0)


Notice that since our lambda expression doesn’t capture any external variables in its closure, compiler is free to share single lambda instance (contained in static field INSTANCE) across all codebase.

The case is more complicated when closures are involved, for example consider the following code:

var value = 0

val incValue = { value++ }
val decValue = { value-- }



As usual Kotlin compiler generated classes for lambdas:

final class AppKt$main$incValue$1 extends Lambda implements Function0 {
   final IntRef $value;

   AppKt$main$incValue$1(IntRef var1) {
      this.$value = var1;

   public final int invoke() {
      int var1 = this.$value.element++;
      return var1;

final class AppKt$main$decValue$1 extends Lambda implements Function0 {
   final IntRef $value;

   AppKt$main$decValue$1(IntRef var1) {
      this.$value = var1;

   public final int invoke() {
      int var1 = this.$value.element;
      this.$value.element += -1;
      return var1;

Both classes generated for lambda expressions now take a single parameter of type IntRef. As you may suspect this class is a wrapper around value variable, its definition is again part of Kotlin runtime:

public final class IntRef implements Serializable {
   public int element;

   public String toString() {
      return String.valueOf(this.element);

This time our original code is compiled into:

// var value = 0
IntRef value = new IntRef();
value.element = 0;

// val incValue = { value++ }
Function0 incValue = 
    (Function0)(new AppKt.main.incValue.1(value));

// val decValue = { value-- }
Function0 decValue = 
    (Function0)(new AppKt.main.decValue.1(value));

// incValue()

// decValue()

// println(value)
int var4 = value.element;

As we can see code generated for lambdas with closures is much more complicated. Value of every variable accessed by lambda expression must be stored in lambda class field. Primitive types must be wrapped in classes like IntRef and unwrapped when they values are needed (reference types are not wrapped). Also bear in mind that compiler instantiates plenty of new objects even for a simple code used in our example, this may negatively affect performance of your application if you are not careful.

Using receiver object

Sometimes we want lambda expression to behave as it was a method on some object, we will call this object receiver. By this I mean that lambda will have access to this value and also lambda will be able to call other methods on receiver without any qualification. This behaviour is mostly used when we create custom DSLs (for more details see Kotlin official documentation).

Let’s look at a simple example:

class DummyObject {
    fun foo() { println("foo") }
    fun bar() { println("bar") }

fun main(args: Array<String>) {
    val f1: DummyObject.() -> Unit = {
        // call methods without qualification

        // we can use this

        // this will have type of the receiver object
        val this_: DummyObject = this

    // we can call lambda in a classic way

    // or using more idiomatic syntax
    val dummy = DummyObject()

First we declare f1 to be a lambda that operates on receiver objects of type DummyObject, to do that we prepend TypeOfReceiver. to a function type. Then we may call methods on current receiver object without any qualification, and use this to obtain current receiver. Of course when invoking such a lambda we must provide receiver, we can either pass it as a first parameter or use special receiver.lambda_name(args) syntax.

A bit of warning here, in our example if we add f1() method to our DummyObject then that method would be called and not our lambda if we use receiver.lambda_name(args) syntax:

val dummy = DummyObject()
dummy.f1() // object methods have precedence

Lambdas with receiver were devised to allow creation of easy to use DSLs, you should not use them in you code until you are building custom DSL.

One more thing, sometimes we want to convert a call to an object method to a lambda expression. We don’t need to use lambdas with receiver to achieve that, plain lambda is enough:

val dummy = DummyObject()

val x: ()->Unit = { }

val y = { }

Or even better we may use method references (borrowed by Kotlin from Java 8):

val dummy = DummyObject()

val x: ()->Unit = dummy::foo
x() // calls foo on dummy

val y = dummy::bar
y() // calls bar on dummy

Using lambdas with inline methods

Kotlin supports inline methods, they are similar to macros in C and LISP and allow us to add new statements to the language. To understand how inline methods work we will create a new statement that executes given block of code and reports how much time that execution took.

We will start with plain method:

fun time(blockName: String, codeBlock: ()->Unit) {
    val startTime = System.currentTimeMillis()

    try {
    finally {
        val endTime = System.currentTimeMillis()
        println("execution of $blockName took ${endTime-startTime} ms.")

Then we may use this method to measure time of e.g. printing new line to the standard output:

time("simple println", {
    println("Hello, world!")

This doesn’t look very readable, fortunately in Kotlin when last function parameter is of function type we may use alternative syntax:

time("simple println") {
    println("Hello, world!")

This looks more like a language statement than a function call, but we still call time function. Yet we may do even better than that, if we add inline modifier to the time function compiler will inline our function at callsite instead of calling it. For example with:

inline fun time(blockName: String, codeBlock: ()->Unit) {

Our sample call is translated by compiler into:

String blockName$iv = "simple println";
long startTime$iv = System.currentTimeMillis();

String var4, var11;
long endTime$iv1;
try {
    var4 = "Hello, world!";
finally {
    endTime$iv1 = System.currentTimeMillis();
    var11 = "execution of " + blockName$iv + " took " + 
        (endTime$iv1 - startTime$iv) + " ms.";

Kotlin compiler assumes that if we pass lambda expression to inline function it also will be inlined. For this reason Kotlin allows us to use break, continue[1] and return statements in lambdas that are passed to inline functions, for example:

time("simple println") {
    println("Hello, world!")

Sometimes inline function takes lambda parameter but passes it to another function, such parameters may not be inlined and should be marked with crossinline modifier. We may also mark lambda parameter as “noninlineable” with noinline modifier. In both cases we will not be able to use return and other control flow instructions in lambdas passed as values to such parameters.

  • [1] - break and continue are not yet supported, but Kotlin team plans to add them to the language in a future release.

Covariance and contravariance

Kotlin lambda expressions support covariance and contravariance as is illustrated by the following example:

val stringProducer: ()->String = { "foo" }
val anyProducer: ()->Any = stringProducer


val anyConsumer: (Any)->Unit = { any -> println("consumed '$any'") }
val stringConsumer: (String)->Unit = anyConsumer


We can see that a lambda that returns String may be used anywhere where a lambda that returns Any is expected. The same goes for parameters, lambda that takes Any parameter may be used in place of a function that takes String parameter.

How to decompile Kotlin code

To provide decompiled code samples I used Bytecode Viewer with FernFlower engine: Bytecode Viewer main window


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