Basso Continuo: Definition & Instruments

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  • 0:03 Basso Continuo
  • 1:49 Figured Bass
  • 2:56 Instruments
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

In Baroque music, most performances were held together by the basso continuo: a couple of instruments playing a bass line and harmonies. In this lesson, you'll learn how the basso continuo worked and which instruments played it.

Basso Continuo

Jazz is one of today's freest and most fun music styles. One of its characteristic features is improvisation. When a group of musicians get together to play a jazz standard, they start with the song's traditional melody then improvise a musical adventure around it. What keeps jazz improv from descending into chaos?

Billie Holiday and a Rhythm Section

Take a look at this image of a performance by jazz great Billie Holiday. A pianist, a double bass player, and a drummer are playing while Billie sings in her trademark improv style. These three guys are called the rhythm section. The pianist plays the chords, the drummer keeps the beat, and the bass player plays the song's bass line. In jazz, the rhythm section keeps an ensemble together so soloists can be free to improvise.

Jazz is not the first musical genre to celebrate improvisation nor is it the first to feature a rhythm section to keep an ensemble's performance together. During the Baroque, a period of music history that lasted from 1600-1750, musicians were almost as free to improvise on their melodies as jazz musicians are today.

The Baroque equivalent of the jazz rhythm section was the basso continuo. The term refers to a continuous bass line in a Baroque piece, with harmonies improvised on top of it. The term can also refer to the actual instruments that play the basso continuo, which typically include a chord instrument to play the harmonies and a low-pitched line instrument to play the bass line.

Basso continuo

Take a look at this painting of an 18th-Century music ensemble. Do you see the keyboardist and cellist accompanying the flutist and bassoonist? The keyboard is playing the music's chords and rhythm, and the cellist is playing the music's bass line. The keyboard and cello are playing the basso continuo, so that the flute and bassoon can play their melodies atop a stable musical structure.

Figured Bass

Basso continuo is an Italian term that means continuous bass. English musicians sometimes used the term 'thoroughbass' to mean the same thing. Basso continuo results from a composing style that was incredibly popular during the Baroque period. This style notated harmonies in an abbreviated way, using numbers, or figures. That's why the style is called figured bass.

In figured bass, composers wrote out only the bass lines and melodies. Instead of filling in all the music's chords, they wrote numbers (called figures) below the bass line notes. These numbers told the continuo players, usually the keyboardist, what notes to add in order to fill in the harmonies. In this image, you can see what figured bass looks like in a Baroque score. It's an excerpt from Dido and Aeneas, a Baroque opera by the English composer Henry Purcell.

Figured Bass in Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell

Performing from a basso continuo part is called the realization of a figured bass. As you might guess, there's quite an art to realizing figured bass. Musicians who specialize in Baroque music spend years learning how to realize figured bass in an exciting and period-appropriate style.

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