Every thing or object in Python is an instance of a class. The number 42 is an instance of the class int. The string Hello, world is an instance of the str (or string) class. These classes, in turn, are subclasses of the master object class.

Classes vs Instances

The Object-oriented Programming paradigm is structured around Classes and Instances. You can think of a class as a “type” of something, like “Car.” You can think of an instance as a specific thing, such as “my Subaru,” which is a type of “Car.” Both classes and instances can have variables and methods. Changing a class variable will change what is returned when you get that variable from an instance, however changing an instance variable only applies to that one instance. We’ll come back to this in a second.


You might have seen the self keyword peppered around in examples of Python objects. self is used inside classes to refer to a bound instance variable or object. For example, let’s say we have a class called Car:

class Car:
    runs = True

    def start(self):
        if self.runs:
            print("Car is started. Vroom vroom!")
            print("Car is broken :(")

Now, let’s make a specific instance of our Car class and call the start() method on it to see if it starts.

>>> my_car = Car()
>>> my_car.runs
>>> my_car.start()
Car is started. Vroom vroom!

We can see that the runs variable of our my_car instance is True. Now, what if we set runs to False?

>>> my_car.runs = False
>>> my_car.start()
Car is broken :(

But if we make a new instance of the Car class…

>>> my_other_car = Car()
>>> my_other_car.start()
Car is started. Vroom vroom!

When we run the start() function, the self keyword points to the bound instance of Car - so when we call start() on my_car, self points to my_car and sees an instance variable runs that is False, but when we call my_other_car.start(), it returns True. Why?

self refers to an instance

Back to what we were saying in the last section, runs is a class variable on the Car class, meaning that it exists for all instances of type Car. When we set runs to False, we created an instance variable on my_car, and when we called start(), self told the interpreter to look for an instance variable in my_car called runs.

When we called my_other_car.start(), the interpreter looked for an instance variable called runs, but didn’t find it, so it looked at the next level up, the class, and found the class variable Car.runs, which returned True.

You may have noticed, but all instance methods within classes take self as their first argument, such as def start(self): above.

What happens if we call start() on the Car class instead of an instance?

>>> Car.start()
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: start() missing 1 required positional argument: 'self'

If you try to call start() on the Car class, self doesn’t have an instance to bind to, so we get an error that the required argument self wasn’t passed in to the start() function.