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Figured Bass Notation: Principle & Examples

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Do you like to listen to music? What's your favorite part? How about the bass? Some music has strong bass lines. In this lesson, you'll learn about figured bass notation.

What Is Figured Bass Notation?

When you listen to music, do you enjoy a good bass line? Rock and jazz music often use moving bass lines. The bass line is the sound produced by the lowest voice in an ensemble. It can give music a steady beat and provide interesting texture and contrast to the melody.

But modern music isn't the only kind that uses a bass line. During the Baroque period, from roughly 1600 to around 1750, some composers wrote music that used a moving bass line played by instruments, sometimes called basso continuo or continual bass. To tell musicians how to play the basso continuo, composers used something called figured bass notation.

Figured bass notation is a shorthand system of numbers under bass notes on a piece of written music. It's sometimes also called thorough bass, and it's part of a composition's accompaniment, or music that complements the main melody.

Look at the bottom line on this music by Henry Purcell. The numbers under the notes are figured bass notation
Figured bass notation

In figured bass notation, the written numbers refer to intervals related to a bass note's chord structure. A chord is three or more notes played at the same time to create harmony. A typical chord of three notes has the following parts: the root or base of the chord, the third, and a fifth. The numerical terms relate to where the notes sit on the staff lines and spaces in relation to each other.

In a lot of Baroque music, the bass line could be improvised, which means the musician could create the music in their head as long as they followed the basic chord structure. Rather than write out all the chords on the bass line, Baroque composers developed figured bass notation, which included a single low note on the musical staff and written numbers under it. The numbers were usually stacked, one over the other.

Now, figured bass lines couldn't be played by all instruments. It required instruments with an ability to play chords, called chordal instruments . Chordal instruments included keyboards and string instruments like harpsichord, organ, piano, guitar and lute.

In this ensemble, the chordal instruments are the cello and the harpsichord
Chordal instruments

Examples of Figured Bass Notation

So, figured bass notation was a written signal to the person playing the bass line to add chords to complete the harmony. Composers who used figured bass notation included Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695), an Englishman who wrote sacred music and music for theatrical performances; and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750), the famed German composer of sacred music like masses, motets, and cantatas.

Sheet music with figured bass notation
figured bass notation

During the Baroque, musicians reading and performing music would have known what the figured bass notation meant as soon as they looked at a piece of music. And a few things were assumed. The basic chord we discussed earlier, with the root, the third and the fifth, was often referred to as a 3/5 chord. On a piece of music with figured bass notation, if a note didn't have any numbers under it, the player knew they were to play the notes of a basic 3/5 chord. Otherwise, they followed the written numbers. For example, if the numbers under the bass note were a 6 over a 3, that meant the player would create a chord with the third and the sixth to the written note.

People who wrote in figured bass notation also used other symbols to guide the players. If the symbol of a sharp or flat appeared next to a note, that meant the player was to make that change. If the sharp or flat symbol appeared under a note that had no numbers, it was to be applied to the 3rd of the chord. A slash through a number or a plus (+) sign meant to raise the note a half-step. While it sounds complicated, remember that the person playing the line knew what all the numbers and symbols meant.

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