How to Use DENSE_RANK() in SQL

By Cristian G. Guasch • Updated: 03/03/24 • 10 min read

Navigating through SQL’s powerful functions can sometimes feel like unlocking a treasure chest, and one of the jewels inside is definitely the DENSE_RANK function. It’s not just a tool; it’s your ally in managing complex data sets, especially when you’re dealing with rankings.

I’ve spent countless hours tinkering with SQL queries, and I’ve found that understanding how to use DENSE_RANK effectively can be a game changer. It helps you assign ranks to rows in your database without skipping any ranks in case of ties, ensuring a smoother data analysis process. Let’s dive into how you can leverage this function to its full potential.

What is DENSE_RANK function in SQL?

Diving deeper into SQL’s treasure chest, I’ve found DENSE_RANK to be a knight in shining armor, especially when dealing with complex datasets. This function is a window function that assigns a unique rank to each row within a partition of a result set, without gaps in ranking values. The beauty of DENSE_RANK is its capability to handle ties gracefully; rows with similar values receive the same rank, but unlike the RANK function, DENSE_RANK doesn’t skip any ranks afterward.

Let’s try to understand how DENSE_RANK works with a few examples. These examples will not only clarify its functionality but also highlight some common pitfalls to avoid.

-- Example 1: Basic Usage
FROM Students;

In this simple example, we’re assigning ranks to students based on their scores in descending order. With DENSE_RANK, if two students have the same score, they will share the same rank, and the next rank won’t be skipped.

-- Example 2: Partition By Example
FROM Students;

This example demonstrates the partitioning feature where ranking is applied within each course separately. It’s a powerful way to apply rankings in groups.

  • Forgetting to order results: Without the ORDER BY clause, DENSE_RANK can produce unpredictable outcomes. Always specify how you want the data sorted.
  • Overlooking PARTITION BY: Without partitioning, DENSE_RANK operates on the entire result set. Remember, partitioning can provide more granular and relevant rankings.
  • Confusing with RANK: Remember, RANK might skip ranks in the event of ties, unlike DENSE_RANK.

By keeping these points in mind and experimenting with the examples given, mastering DENSE_RANK in SQL isn’t just possible; it becomes a smooth and rewarding journey.

Advantages of using DENSE_RANK

DENSE_RANK offers a seamless way to rank items within a dataset, especially when handling tied values. Its ability to provide rankings without skipping numbers in the presence of ties is a considerable advantage over some other SQL ranking functions. I’ll explore its benefits and how it stands out.

Seamless Handling of Ties

When dealing with datasets where ties are common, DENSE_RANK shines by ensuring that no ranks are skipped. For instance, if two rows tie for first place, both are ranked 1, and the next row is ranked 2, not 3. This consistency is crucial for transparent ranking and reporting purposes.

Example: Ranking Sales Performance

Suppose we have a table sales_data with columns salesperson_id and revenue. To rank the salespeople by their performance without skipping ranks:

DENSE_RANK() OVER (ORDER BY revenue DESC) AS sales_rank

This query assigns a rank based on revenue, ensuring that salespeople with identical figures share the same rank.

Efficient Data Segmentation with PARTITION BY

DENSE_RANK can be combined with PARTITION BY to rank data within specific segments. This is particularly useful for comparisons within categories.

Example: Departmental Sales Ranking

DENSE_RANK() OVER (PARTITION BY department_id ORDER BY revenue DESC) as departmental_rank

This ranks salespeople within each department, providing insights into each team’s performance.

  • Forgetting to ORDER: Without an ORDER BY clause, DENSE_RANK cannot function correctly, as it’s unclear how to rank the rows.
  • Overlooking PARTITION: Omitting PARTITION BY when needed can lead to less meaningful rankings, as it ranks across the whole data set instead of within desired segments.

Mastering DENSE_RANK involves handling these nuances to leverage its full potential effectively. Experimenting with these examples is a great way to grasp its utility in varying scenarios.

Syntax of DENSE_RANK function

When I dive into the nuts and bolts of the DENSE_RANK function in SQL, I find its syntax fairly straightforward yet powerful. To use DENSE_RANK effectively, you need to understand its structure. The basic syntax goes like this:


This is the skeleton that ranks your data based on the column_name you specify. You can sort the results in ascending (ASC) or descending (DESC) order. What makes DENSE_RANK stand out is its approach to ties. When values tie, DENSE_RANK assigns the same rank, without skipping any subsequent ranks.

Let’s add a layer of complexity with the PARTITION BY clause, a game-changer for segmenting your data into groups for independent ranking:

DENSE_RANK() OVER (PARTITION BY another_column_name ORDER BY column_name)

In this variation, another_column_name is the field by which you group your data, allowing for rankings within each group.

Common Mistakes

As I’ve experimented with DENSE_RANK, I’ve encountered a few common pitfalls:

  • Forgetting to Order Results: Not using the ORDER BY clause leads to unpredictable rankings. Always specify how you want your data sorted.
  • Overlooking Partitioning: Without PARTITION BY, DENSE_RANK applies to the entire dataset, which might not always be what you’re aiming for.

Illustrative Examples

To solidify your understanding, let’s look at a practical example. Suppose you want to rank sales employees by their sales figures:

SELECT salesperson_id, sales_figure,
DENSE_RANK() OVER (ORDER BY sales_figure DESC) AS sales_rank
FROM sales;

This ranks employees by their sales figures in descending order, ensuring those with the same figure share the same rank.

For a more complex scenario involving partitioning, consider ranking sales by department:

SELECT department, salesperson_id, sales_figure,
DENSE_RANK() OVER (PARTITION BY department ORDER BY sales_figure DESC) AS department_sales_rank
FROM sales;

Here, each department’s salespeople are ranked independently, highlighting top performers within contexts.

Through these examples, I’ve aimed to clarify not just the syntax of DENSE_RANK but also the nuanced considerations and practical applications that underscore its utility.

Examples of DENSE_RANK in action

In diving into how to use the DENSE_RANK function in SQL, it’s crucial to see it in action. I’ll walk you through a couple of examples that not only demonstrate its functionality but how to avoid common mistakes along the way.

Ranking Sales Figures

Let’s start with a straightforward example. Imagine we need to rank our sales employees based on their total sales. Here’s how I would approach it:


In this query, every sales employee is ranked by their SalesAmount in descending order. What makes DENSE_RANK powerful here is its treatment of ties. If two employees have identical sales figures, they receive the same rank, and unlike RANK(), the next rank isn’t skipped.

Partitioning by Department

To take our example a step further, let’s rank employees within their respective departments. This is where the PARTITION BY clause shines, allowing us to segment our data efficiently:

DENSE_RANK() OVER (PARTITION BY Department ORDER BY SalesAmount DESC) AS DeptSalesRank

Each department’s employees are ranked in isolation from the other departments. It’s a fantastic way to draw comparisons within subsets of your data.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

When working with DENSE_RANK, I’ve seen a couple of pitfalls that can easily trip you up:

  • Forgetting to Order: Without an ORDER BY clause within the OVER() function, DENSE_RANK loses its purpose. Ranking implies order, so be sure to specify how you want your data ranked.
  • Overlooking Partitioning: Especially in larger datasets, partitioning not only makes your results more relevant but can also improve query performance substantially.

By keeping these examples and tips in mind, you’ll be well on your way to leveraging DENSE_RANK in your SQL queries with confidence and precision. This function’s ability to elegantly handle rankings and ties, with or without partitions, makes it an indispensable tool in any SQL user’s arsenal.

Best practices for using DENSE_RANK

When diving deeper into the capabilities of DENSE_RANK in SQL, I’ve found that following a set of best practices not only avoids common pitfalls but also enhances the efficiency and accuracy of my queries. Let’s break down these practices with examples and highlight what to watch out for.

Always Include ORDER BY Clause

The essence of DENSE_RANK is to rank rows over a specified order. Omitting the ORDER BY clause is a mistake I see too often. Without it, your results are unpredictable.


FROM sales_employees;

This code ranks sales employees based on their sales figures in descending order. Always specify how you want your data sorted; it’s crucial for meaningful rankings.


Partitioning your data with PARTITION BY creates subsets within which DENSE_RANK operates. It’s useful for comparing ranks within groups. A common mistake is not partitioning data when it clearly benefits the analysis.


SELECT department,
DENSE_RANK() OVER (PARTITION BY department ORDER BY sales DESC) AS department_sales_rank,
FROM sales_employees;

Here, employees are ranked within their respective departments, providing a clearer insight into intra-departmental performance.

Avoid Performance Pitfalls

While DENSE_RANK is powerful, misusing it in large datasets can lead to performance issues. For optimal performance, filter your data before applying DENSE_RANK wherever possible. Large partitions can slow down your query, so keep your data set concise.

-- Correct implementation
WITH filtered_data AS (
FROM sales_employees
WHERE sales_year = 2023
FROM filtered_data;

By first filtering the data and then applying DENSE_RANK, the workload on the SQL engine is significantly reduced, leading to faster query execution.

The key to mastering DENSE_RANK lies in an in-depth understanding of how ordering and partitioning affect your ranking outcomes. By adhering to these best practices, I’ve been able to leverage DENSE_RANK in SQL to its full potential, ensuring both the accuracy of my data analysis and the performance of my queries.


Mastering the DENSE_RANK function in SQL isn’t just about knowing what it does. It’s about strategically implementing it to enhance your data analysis and query performance. Remember to always include the ORDER BY clause for consistency and use the PARTITION BY clause to gain deeper insights into your datasets. Be mindful of the potential performance issues with large datasets and consider filtering your data beforehand. With these practices in place, you’ll be well on your way to leveraging DENSE_RANK effectively, ensuring your data analysis is both accurate and efficient.

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