Type Macros



Eugene Burmako

Type macros used to be available in previous versions of “Macro Paradise”, but are not supported anymore in macro paradise 2.0. Visit the paradise 2.0 announcement for an explanation and suggested migration strategy.


Just as def macros make the compiler execute custom functions when it sees invocations of certain methods, type macros let one hook into the compiler when certain types are used. The snippet below shows definition and usage of the H2Db macro, which generates case classes representing tables in a database along with simple CRUD functionality.

type H2Db(url: String) = macro impl

object Db extends H2Db("coffees")

val brazilian = Db.Coffees.insert("Brazilian", 99, 0)
Db.Coffees.update(brazilian.copy(price = 10))

The full source code of the H2Db type macro is provided at GitHub, and this guide covers its most important aspects. First the macro generates the statically typed database wrapper by connecting to a database at compile-time (tree generation is explained in the reflection overview). Then it uses the NEW c.introduceTopLevel API to insert the generated wrapper into the list of top-level definitions maintained by the compiler. Finally, the macro returns an Apply node, which represents a super constructor call to the generated class. NOTE that type macros are supposed to expand into c.Tree, unlike def macros, which expand into c.Expr[T]. That’s because Exprs represent terms, while type macros expand into types.

type H2Db(url: String) = macro impl

def impl(c: Context)(url: c.Expr[String]): c.Tree = {
  val name = c.freshName(
  val clazz = ClassDef(..., Template(..., generateCode()))
  c.introduceTopLevel(, clazz)
  val classRef = Select(, name)
  Apply(classRef, List(Literal(Constant(c.eval(url)))))

object Db extends H2Db("coffees")
// equivalent to: object Db extends Db$1("coffees")

Instead of generating a synthetic class and expanding into a reference to it, a type macro can transform its host instead by returning a Template tree. Inside scalac both class and object definitions are internally represented as thin wrappers over Template trees, so by expanding into a template, type macro has a possibility to rewrite the entire body of the affected class or object. You can see a full-fledged example of this technique at GitHub.

type H2Db(url: String) = macro impl

def impl(c: Context)(url: c.Expr[String]): c.Tree = {
  val Template(_, _, existingCode) = c.enclosingTemplate
  Template(..., existingCode ++ generateCode())

object Db extends H2Db("coffees")
// equivalent to: object Db {
//   <existing code>
//   <generated code>
// }


Type macros represent a hybrid between def macros and type members. On the one hand, they are defined like methods (e.g. they can have value arguments, type parameters with context bounds, etc). On the other hand, they belong to the namespace of types and, as such, they can only be used where types are expected (see an exhaustive example at GitHub), they can only override types or other type macros, etc.

Feature Def macros Type macros Type members
Are split into defs and impl Yes Yes No
Can have value parameters Yes Yes No
Can have type parameters Yes Yes Yes
… with variance annotations No No Yes
… with context bounds Yes Yes No
Can be overloaded Yes Yes No
Can be inherited Yes Yes Yes
Can override and be overridden Yes Yes Yes

In Scala programs type macros can appear in one of five possible roles: type role, applied type role, parent type role, new role and annotation role. Depending on the role in which a macro is used, which can be inspected with the NEW c.macroRole API, its list of allowed expansions is different.

Role Example Class Non-class? Apply? Template?
Type def x: TM(2)(3) = ??? Yes Yes No No
Applied type class C[T: TM(2)(3)] Yes Yes No No
Parent type class C extends TM(2)(3)
new TM(2)(3){}
Yes No Yes Yes
New new TM(2)(3) Yes No Yes No
Annotation @TM(2)(3) class C Yes No Yes No

To put it in a nutshell, expansion of a type macro replace the usage of a type macro with a tree it returns. To find out whether an expansion makes sense, mentally replace some usage of a macro with its expansion and check whether the resulting program is correct.

For example, a type macro used as TM(2)(3) in class C extends TM(2)(3) can expand into Apply(Ident(TypeName("B")), List(Literal(Constant(2)))), because that would result in class C extends B(2). However the same expansion wouldn’t make sense if TM(2)(3) was used as a type in def x: TM(2)(3) = ???, because def x: B(2) = ??? (given that B itself is not a type macro; if it is, it will be recursively expanded and the result of the expansion will determine validity of the program).

Tips and tricks

Generating classes and objects

With type macros you might increasingly find yourself in a zone where reify is not applicable, as explained at StackOverflow. In that case consider using quasiquotes, another experimental feature from macro paradise, as an alternative to manual tree construction.