Home > Articles > Data

Querying Neo4j with Cypher

Steven Haines concludes his three-part series on Neo4j with an overview of Cypher, Neo4j's custom query language. Learn by example how to build basic single-element queries, and then move on to structuring multiple-level queries that are surprisingly readable.
Like this article? We recommend

Like this article? We recommend

This article is the final installment of a three-part series on programming Neo4j with Java. Part 1, “Introduction to Neo4j,” presented an overview of Neo4j, discussing why you should use it, what problems it solves, and how to set up a local Neo4j environment. Part 2, “Programming Neo4j with Java,” reviewed two of the three primary interfaces for working with Neo4j in Java: the Core Java API and the Traversal API. This article addresses the third—and most powerful—way to work with Neo4j: the Cypher query language.

Introduction to Cypher

The Cypher query language allows you to use human-readable text to describe how you want the traverser to retrieve your results. A traditional Cypher query begins with a pattern that is used to match starting nodes, and then a set of relationships the traverser will follow to find your results. You might also add matching conditions, filters, and so on to fine-tune your results.

Let's begin by using Cypher queries to find nodes in the user/movie example presented in the previous articles in this series. For our first example, let's find all movies that a user in our database has seen. As a reminder, the following snippet shows how we found users by using the Core Java API:

Node michael = graphDB.findNode( Labels.USER, "name", "Michael" );

// Find all of Michael's movies
System.out.println( "Michael's movies: " );
for( Relationship relationship : michael.getRelationships(
     Direction.OUTGOING, RelationshipTypes.HAS_SEEN ) )

     System.out.println( ( String )relationship.getOtherNode(
michael ).getProperty( "name" ) );


We found our starting node by searching for the node with the USER label and the name property of “Michael”; then we retrieved all of Michael's HAS_SEEN relationships and iterated over the results, displaying the movie names.

Here's how we found a user's movies by using the Traversal API:

Node michael = graphDB.findNode( Labels.USER, "name", "Michael" );
// Find all movies that Michael has seen
TraversalDescription myMovies = graphDB.traversalDescription()
                    .relationships( RelationshipTypes.HAS_SEEN )
                    .evaluator( Evaluators.atDepth( 1 ) );

traverser = myMovies.traverse( michael );
System.out.println( "Michael's movies: " );
for( Node movie : traverser.nodes() )
    System.out.println( "\t" + movie.getProperty( "name" ) );

Using the Traversal API, we created a TraversalDescription, through which we told the traverser to traverse the graph using a breadth-first algorithm and follow all HAS_SEEN relationships to a depth of 1 (immediate children of the starting node). We invoked the TraversalDescription's traverse() method, passing it the Michael node to create a traverser, and then we iterated over the results.

Let's review how we would accomplish the same objective by using a Cypher query:

System.out.println( "Michael's movies" );
try( Transaction txn = graphDB.beginTx();
    Result results = graphDB.execute(
       "match( michael:USER { name: 'Michael' } )-[:HAS_SEEN]-(movie) return movie.name " ) )
    while( results.hasNext() )
        Map<String,Object> result = results.next();
        System.out.println( "\t" + result.get( "movie.name" ) );

The core aspect in this example is the Cypher query:

match( michael:USER { name: 'Michael' } )-[:HAS_SEEN]-(movie) return movie.name

A Cypher query usually begins with a match clause that tells the Cypher engine which node(s) to start searching. In this example, we want to find all nodes with the USER label and a name property of “Michael” (which is our Michael user). The match clause and the resultant nodes are enclosed within parentheses, and relationships are enclosed by square brackets. Relationships are named with a colon (:) prefix, and the direction is described using ASCII arrows, in the format shown in the following table.

Relationship Navigation



Follow the specified relationship in both directions (inbound or outbound).


Follow outbound relationships.


Follow inbound relationships.

In this case, we start with the Michael node and follow both inbound and outbound HAS_SEEN relationships to a movie node. The Michael node is named “michael” so that we can access it later in the query, and the resultant node is named “movie”, which we access in the return statement.

The return statement specifies the values we want to return—in this case, just the value of the movie's name property.

We execute our Cypher query by invoking the GraphDatabaseService's execute() method to obtain a Results object. The Results object follows the next()/hasNext() pattern of iteration; each result is a Map<String,Object>. This map contains a mapping of the requested keys (movie.name in this case), and the resulting value from the node. Note that the result is an object; our node property values are not restricted to just String values, but can include primitive types and arrays.

Next, we iterate over the results and display the movie.name values:

Michael's movies
        Big Hero 6

Now let's extend this example to find all movies that Michael's friends have seen:

match( michael:USER { name: 'Michael' } )-[:IS_FRIEND_OF]-(friend)-[:HAS_SEEN]->(movie)
return movie.name

We start by matching the Michael node, as in the previous example, but this time we follow the IS_FRIEND_OF relationships (both incoming and outgoing) to a friend node and then follow that friend's outbound HAS_SEEN relationships to the movies he or she has seen. Because we're not using the “michael” or “friend” variables directly, we could write this query as follows:

match( :USER { name: 'Michael' } )-[:IS_FRIEND_OF]-()-[:HAS_SEEN]->(movie)
return movie.name

We still need :USER to identify that the node has the USER label, but we can completely omit friend in the middle of the relationship. (I'm including the variable names for clarity.) The output for this query is the following:

Michael's friend's movies
        Big Hero 6
        Big Hero 6
        The Interview
        Big Hero 6

This query certainly finds all movies that Michael's friends have seen, but I'm not sure that's what we really wanted. Like the Core Java API and Traversal API concept of uniqueness, Cypher has the notion of distinct nodes. We can rewrite the query as follows:

match( michael:USER { name: 'Michael' } )-[:IS_FRIEND_OF]-(friend)-[:HAS_SEEN]->(movie)
return DISTINCT movie.name

As with SQL queries, we can add the DISTINCT keyword to tell the Cypher engine that we want distinct (unique) results. Our new results are as follows:

Michael's friend's movies (distinct)
        Big Hero 6
        The Interview

Now let's sort our results with the ORDER BY clause:

match( michael:USER { name: 'Michael' } )-[:IS_FRIEND_OF]-(friend)-[:HAS_SEEN]->(movie)
return DISTINCT movie.name ORDER BY movie.name

The ORDER BY clause tells the Cypher engine how to sort its results:

Michael's friend's movies (sorted by name) 
        Big Hero 6
        The Interview

Likewise, you can sort in descending order by using the DESC keyword:

match( michael:USER { name: 'Michael' } )-[:IS_FRIEND_OF]-(friend)-[:HAS_SEEN]->(movie)
return DISTINCT movie.name ORDER BY movie.name DESC

which yields the following output:

Michael's friend's movies (sorted by name descending)
        The Interview
        Big Hero 6

Now let's try something a little more complicated: we'll find all movies that Michael's friends have seen, but Michael hasn't:

match( michael:USER { name: 'Michael' } )-[:IS_FRIEND_OF]-(friend)-[:HAS_SEEN]->(movie)
WHERE NOT (michael)-[:HAS_SEEN]-(movie)
return DISTINCT movie.name ORDER BY movie.name

In this example, we have the same match and return clauses, but we added a new WHERE clause. The WHERE clause allows us to specify the condition(s) that must remain true to keep the result in the result set; for instance, checking the value of properties (such as user.age > 18), or, as in this case, checking that the result is not in the specified sub-query. Here we've combined the WHERE cause with the NOT directive, in order to reverse the logic.

The sub-query in this example uses the michael variable from the match clause and follows all of his HAS_SEEN relationships to a movie node. It is important that the movie variable in this section matches the movie variable in the match clause so that Cypher knows where to make the comparison. Internally, Cypher finds all friends' movies and all of Michael's movies, and only movies that are not in Michael's movies will be returned in the result set:

Michael's friend's movies (that he hasn't seen)
        The Interview

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020