Music Theory and Practice – Figured Bass
Exploring Harmony Through Real Music
Beginnings in The Baroque Era
The Baroque era was a historical artistic period in Europe that spanned from about 1600 to 1750. The term Baroque was initially meant to be derogatory; it derived from the Portuguese barroco, meaning “oddly shaped pearl.” This style was high ornate featuring a lot of flourishes and detailed ornamentation. In music, this included elaborate counterpoint and fanciful musical turns.Prominent Baroque composers include counterpunctal genius Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), oratorio master George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), and the "Red Priest"Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), as well as canon creator Johann Pachelbel (1653 - 1706), opera originator Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), and songstress Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), and many more.
What Is Figured Bass?
Figured bass (also known as basso continuo or thoroughbass) was a musical shorthand for writing chords that was first developed in the Baroque era. The term "continuo" comes from the Italian word "continuare," which means "to continue.” A continuo player may play a keyboard instrument (such as a harpsichord or organ). A bass instrument (such as a cello or double bass) and a chordal instrument (such as a lute or guitar) may also play the continuo parts in addition to, or instead of, the keyboard player.
Figured bass consists of a notated bass-line with numbers written (usually) below each note that represent the intervals to be played above the bass note within the key signature. These numbers allow the continuo player to know the harmony that should accompany the given bass as the intervals describe the harmonic relationships the chord notes have from the bass. It can be thought of as a precursor to lead sheets and chord symbols, and similarly to lead sheet, figured bass provides a harmonic player freedom in choosing chord voicing as long as they stay true to the composer’s written bass-line. When player plays from a continuo score they are said to be “realizing” it. Many more recent publications will provide pre-realized version of the figured bass for modern players who are not as adept with reading the symbols as those of the Baroque period. Today, figured bass is used in Music Theory courses as a shorthand for chord inversions and have students realize figured bass on paper to master harmonic writing. [Watch a performance of a baroque work including a basso continuo section in the video above.]
Figured Bass Numeric System
A root-position triad is "five-three position.” “3” means play the note a third above the bass note (the root of the chord), which is the chord’s third.
“5” means play the note a fifth above the bass note (the root of the chord), which is the chord’s fifth.
However, these numbers are normally not notated unless to indicate an accidental, such as #3, meaning the third above the bass note is sharped.
A 1st-inversion triad is "six-three position.” It is often indicated by a 6.
“6” means play the note a sixth above the bass note (the third of the chord), which is the chord’s root.
“3” means play the note a third above the bass note (the third of the chord), which is the chord’s fifth.
A 2nd-inversion triad "six-four position”.
“6” means play the note a sixth above the bass note (the fifth of the chord), which is the chord’s third.
“4” means play the note a third above the bass note (the third of the chord), which is the chord’s root.
A root-position seventh is “seven-five-three position,” however, just the 7 is used.
A 1st-inversion seventh is “six-five-three” position” and is indicated to by “6 5.” However, on rare occasions "6 5 3" may appear. This is generally to indicate an accidental.
A 2nd-inversion seventh is “six-four-three” position and is indicated to by “4 3.”
A 3rd-inversion seventh is “six-four-two” and is indicated to by “4 2” or just “2.”