The basic concept of the signal system is that of the emission of a signal. Signals are introduced per-type and are identified through strings. Signals introduced for a parent type are available in derived types as well, so basically they are a per-type facility that is inherited.


A signal emission mainly involves invocation of a certain set of callbacks in precisely defined manner. There are two main categories of such callbacks, per-object ones and user provided ones. (Although signals can deal with any kind of instantiatable type, those types are referred to as ‘object types’ in the following, simply because that is the context most users will encounter signals in.) The per-object callbacks are most often referred to as “object method handler” or “default (signal) handler”, while user provided callbacks are usually just called “signal handler”.

The object method handler is provided at signal creation time (this most frequently happens at the end of an object class’ creation), while user provided handlers are frequently connected and disconnected to/from a certain signal on certain object instances.

A handler must match the type defined by the signal in both its arguments and return value (which is often void). All handlers take a pointer to the type instance as their first argument, and a gpointer user_data as their final argument, with signal-defined arguments in-between. The user_data is always filled with the user data provided when the handler was connected to the signal. Handlers are documented as having type GCallback, but this is simply a generic placeholder type — an artifact of the GSignal APIs being polymorphic.

When a signal handler is connected, its first (‘instance’) and final (‘user data’) arguments may be swapped if g_signal_connect_swapped() is used rather than g_signal_connect(). This can sometimes be convenient for avoiding defining wrapper functions as signal handlers, instead just directly passing a function which takes the user data as its first argument.


A signal emission consists of five stages, unless prematurely stopped:

  1. Invocation of the object method handler for G_SIGNAL_RUN_FIRST signals

  2. Invocation of normal user-provided signal handlers (where the after flag is not set)

  3. Invocation of the object method handler for G_SIGNAL_RUN_LAST signals

  4. Invocation of user provided signal handlers (where the after flag is set)

  5. Invocation of the object method handler for G_SIGNAL_RUN_CLEANUP signals

The user-provided signal handlers are called in the order they were connected in.

All handlers may prematurely stop a signal emission, and any number of handlers may be connected, disconnected, blocked or unblocked during a signal emission.

There are certain criteria for skipping user handlers in stages 2 and 4 of a signal emission.

First, user handlers may be blocked. Blocked handlers are omitted during callback invocation, to return from the blocked state, a handler has to get unblocked exactly the same amount of times it has been blocked before.

Second, upon emission of a G_SIGNAL_DETAILED signal, an additional detail argument passed in to g_signal_emit() has to match the detail argument of the signal handler currently subject to invocation. Specification of no detail argument for signal handlers (omission of the detail part of the signal specification upon connection) serves as a wildcard and matches any detail argument passed in to emission.

While the detail argument is typically used to pass an object property name (as with GObject::notify), no specific format is mandated for the detail string, other than that it must be non-empty.

Memory management of signal handlers

If you are connecting handlers to signals and using a GObject instance as your signal handler user data, you should remember to pair calls to g_signal_connect() with calls to g_signal_handler_disconnect() or g_signal_handlers_disconnect_by_func(). While signal handlers are automatically disconnected when the object emitting the signal is finalised, they are not automatically disconnected when the signal handler user data is destroyed. If this user data is a GObject instance, using it from a signal handler after it has been finalised is an error.

There are two strategies for managing such user data. The first is to disconnect the signal handler (using g_signal_handler_disconnect() or g_signal_handlers_disconnect_by_func()) when the user data (object) is finalised; this has to be implemented manually. For non-threaded programs, g_signal_connect_object() can be used to implement this automatically. Currently, however, it is unsafe to use in threaded programs.

The second is to hold a strong reference on the user data until after the signal is disconnected for other reasons. This can be implemented automatically using g_signal_connect_data().

The first approach is recommended, as the second approach can result in effective memory leaks of the user data if the signal handler is never disconnected for some reason.