Tips for troubles with Sequential and Functional API syntax

Plenty of people have trouble with the syntax of Keras model creation. What’s up with the square brackets? The commas? That weird (x) thing at the end? Without going too deep on a TensorFlow tutorial, I thought I’d share a few things that might help simplify what’s going on.

First, it’s important to remember that TensorFlow is based on a graph model. Even though eager execution now allows evaluation of operations immediately, without building graphs, the graph influence is pervasive. I find it particularly true when creating Keras models. Think of the layers as nodes in the graph, and the data flow between layers as the graph edges. Hopefully this makes more sense below.

Let’s start with the Sequential model. According to the documentation, a Sequential model is appropriate for a plain stack of layers where each layer has exactly one input tensor and one output tensor. Here’s how you set up a Sequential model:

import tensorflow as tf
from tensorflow import keras
from tensorflow.keras import layers

    #define a model architecture using Sequential
sequential_model_def = keras.Sequential(
        layers.Dense(64, activation="relu", name="dense_1_sequential_def"),
        layers.Dense(64, activation="relu", name="dense_2_sequential_def"),
        layers.Dense(10, name="predictions_sequential_def"),

A simple model with 3 fully connected layers. Let’s see what it looks like as a graph:

keras.utils.plot_model(sequential_model_def, "visualize_sequential_model_no_input_yet.png", show_shapes=True)

Screen Shot 2021-10-19 at 10.34.15 AM

Hmm, not very interesting. What’s going on? Turns out that the Sequential model constructor does a lot of work for you under the covers. One of which is to dynamically build the weights matrices. But weight matrix shapes depend on the shape of the input, which we haven’t provided yet. As a result, the model isn’t considered ‘built’ until you provide it with the input shape.

    #define an input layer that can be used for all examples
input_layer = keras.Input(shape=(784,), name="input_layer")

    #inform the model about its inputs

    #now try visualizing again
keras.utils.plot_model(sequential_model_def, "visualize_sequential_model.png", show_shapes=True)

Take a moment to confirm that the input and output shapes of the layers match the definition in the code above. Also notice that the directed graph was built to match the order of the comma delimited list of layers. This is where the square brackets come in to play. You are passing the model constructor a Python list that is defined on the fly using square brackets, separating items with commas: [a, b, c]. The dependencies (data flow/graph edges) between the model layers (graph nodes) are automatically inferred from the order in which they appeared in that list.

There is an alternative method for conveying input shape to your model. You can pass it as an optional argument to the first layer. That is:

layers.Dense(64, activation="relu",name="dense_1_sequential_def", input_shape=(784,)),

NOTE: what you cannot do is provide the input shape like this:


The data_format parameter is a string, not a tuple. The only acceptable values are channels_last, the default, or channels_first.

You can accomplish the same thing using the Sequential API with a different style, namely the add() function. Here is the code and the graph it produces:

    #what about using the add() function?
sequential_model_def_2 = keras.Sequential()
sequential_model_def_2.add(layers.Dense(64, activation="relu", name="dense_1_sequential_def_2"))
sequential_model_def_2.add(layers.Dense(64, activation="relu", name="dense_2_sequential_def_2"))
sequential_model_def_2.add(layers.Dense(10, name="predictions_sequential_def_2"))

keras.utils.plot_model(sequential_model_def_2, "visualize_sequential_model_2.png", show_shapes=True)

I changed the layer names to def_2, but otherwise, exactly the same. The add() function is acting like an append(), in that the new layer appears at the end of the list (NOTE: IIRC the internal data structure is actually a stack). You can see why the Sequential model only supports simple models: it is a limitation of using the Python List data structure to define the topology.

To overcome this limitation there is the Functional API. The Keras Functional API is a way to create more flexible (ie complex) models. It can handle non-linear topology, shared layers, and multiple inputs and outputs. Unlike the sequential model, where the simple topology can be inferred from the Python list of layers, in the functional API you explicitly build the graph of layer nodes. Here is an example, using the same input layer and the same fully connected shapes:

    #now let's define the same architecture using the functional API
l1 = layers.Dense(64, activation="relu", name="dense_1_functional_def")(input_layer)
l2 = layers.Dense(64, activation="relu", name="dense_2_functional_def")(l1)
predictions = layers.Dense(10, activation="softmax", name="predictions_functional_def")(l2)

functional_model_def = keras.Model(inputs=input_layer, outputs=predictions)

keras.utils.plot_model(functional_model_def, "visualize_functional_model.png", show_shapes=True)

Again, other than the labels, the graph is the same. The layer shapes are provided the same way in both APIs. What is different here is that the layer dependencies are explicitly added inside the trailing parenthesis. That is, the l1 layer is connected to the input_layer by writing…

l1 = layers.Dense(...)(input_layer)

The l2 layer is connected to the l1 layer by writing…

l2 = layers.Dense(...)(l1)

and so on. The first section of the expression is the constructor; it builds the new layer instance node. The second part, with the (x), connects the newest node to some other layer. Once the model is built, there is no difference in the way they are handled or treated. It’s only the syntax for model definition that varies. Hopefully this helps make sense of why and how to deal with the differences.


Thanks for sharing @ai_curious. Great quality content as always!


Hi thanks for the explanation, when we input the outputs and inputs layer in Keran.Model does it pick up the intermediate dense layers you defined as well?

  1. What I understood was that in functional API the constructor builds the node or layer and then when we put (inputs) in parenthesis it passes to this node object and creates the connections with the preceding layer. However how does it convert it into a constructor? Does it use —call— method or something?

Look at the plot of functional_model_def in the post above. It shows the entire graph, from input_layer to predictions_functional_def and everything in between. So the answer is ‘Yes’

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The notation in the initial code fragments above mimics what is used in the programming exercise notebooks from the course and what seems to be common practice. It is really a compressed or shorthand expression that combines two steps. Below is a more transparent way of writing the code. In this approach the first statement of a pair is the constructor that creates the layer object (instance). The following statement uses that new instance and connects to a previous layer.

   #this pair of statements creates the first layer
dense_layer_object1 = layers.Dense(64, activation="relu", name="dense_1_functional_def")
l1 = dense_layer_object1(input_layer)

   #this pair of statements creates the second layer
dense_layer_object2 = layers.Dense(64, activation="relu", name="dense_2_functional_def")
l2 = dense_layer_object2(l1)

dense_layer_object3 = layers.Dense(10, activation="softmax", name="predictions_functional_def")
predictions = dense_layer_object3(l2)

functional_model_def = keras.Model(inputs=input_layer, outputs=predictions)

keras.utils.plot_model(functional_model_def, "visualize_functional_model.png", show_shapes=True)

More shorthand way…

    # here the first two statements above are condensed into one
    #    the first part Dense(...) is the constructor
    #    the second part (previous_layer) is the 'wiring' of the graph
l1 = layers.Dense(64, activation="relu", name="dense_1_functional_def")(input_layer)

   #and the second pair are condensed 
l2 = layers.Dense(64, activation="relu", name="dense_2_functional_def")(l1)

predictions = layers.Dense(10, activation="softmax", name="predictions_functional_def")(l2)

functional_model_def = keras.Model(inputs=input_layer, outputs=predictions)

keras.utils.plot_model(functional_model_def, "visualize_functional_model.png", show_shapes=True)
1 Like

thanks a lot for the wonderful explanation!! I had only few doubt left,

  1. “how” is the first part creating a constructor.
  2. is Layers.Dense a Class or a or function that returns a object which is then called using the 2nd parenthesis

It isn’t creating a constructor, it is invoking the constructor method on the class. In Pythonese it is the __init__() method that gets executed.

Layers.Dense is a class. See the Keras doc for it here==>
See the source code for it on github here ==>

Layers.Dense(units, activation, use_bias,…) is a constructor that causes an object of type Layers.Dense to be instantiated (by executing the init() method)
see the source code for the init() method on github here ==>

Layers.Dense(…)(input) causes the instance to be created and then executes its call() method
see the source code for the call() method on github here ==>

1 Like

simply lovely! thanks alot !!

1 Like

hey there,

i still have some problems to implement the .add() method.

i am using:
model.add(tfl.ZeroPadding2D( … )
and so on.

Don’t know what is the problem.

Using sequential with comma is working but i want to try the add function as well.

Thank you! @ai_curious

Well, one thing I see right away in your little code fragment is unbalanced parentheses, though it could be just a typing oversight and not how your code is implemented in the notebook. There is a section on using add() in the initial post of this thread. Notice every line is a complete, separate Python expression…no commas or list. If you elaborate what problem you are experiencing maybe someone here can help.

Thank you so much! These homeworks really only waste my time with syntax struggles because they don’t properly explain new modules. This one even had a red herring with the .add() function that you didn’t even need! These homeworks need some serious improvement. Explicitly state that this is a list and we need commas at the ends of each of these layer definitions! OK rant over.


Agree with previous comment, suggest that ai_curious post gets referenced in the notebook - win win for everyone