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Figured Bass Realization: Methods, Rules & Examples

Instructor: Rachel Matz

Rachel teaches acting and voice. She has an MFA in Acting and an MBA in Business Administration.

In this lesson, find out when figured bass was introduced, what it is, and how it is used in music. We will also discuss realizing a figured bass and its impact on four-part vocal harmony.

Figured Bass

Figured bass, also called thorough bass, was introduced in the Baroque period from approximately 1600-1750 as a musical technique to assist the keyboardist playing the basso continuo, or continued bass. The basso continuo was the primary form of musical composition in the Baroque era, in which the bass line and accompanying harmony are played throughout the entire musical piece. Keyboard players and guitarists use the figured bass to create impromptu harmonies, and these improvised harmonies connect jazz music to the Baroque. Figured bass is also used for vocal music.

Reading Figured Bass

In figured bass, the musician realizes the harmonies based on the base line and the numbers below. However, the numbers correspond with intervals higher than the bass clef and in the treble clef. The intervals can be larger than the octave. The key signature influences the figures, and depending on the key, a flat, sharp, or natural may be needed to specify a scale degree. For example, the key of G major does not need any accidentals before a figure.

Under the bass line, the harmony line is designated by a series of figures (numbers) indicating the intervals to be played above the bass line. The intervals correspond to a normal triad or 7th chord. If no numbers are written under the bass note, then it is the root of the chord.

Thy Hand, Belinda from Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell with figured bass below
Henry Purcell figured bass

Examples of Chords Indicated by the Figured Bass

Root Position Triads: The bass note is the root of the chord, and the numbers written below are a 3rd and 5th (5/3) measured from the bass note. The numbers can indicate a simple interval or compound equivalent, such as a 3 can be a 3rd, 10th, or 17th. The musician decides which interval to play.

Inversion Triads: The triad has first and second inversions. The first inversion has the 3rd of the chord in the bass (written as 6/3), and the second has the 5th of the chord (written as 6/4). The inversion chords are also measured from the bass.

Seventh Chords use the following figure notations:

  • Root Position--7
  • First Inversion--6/5
  • Second Inversion--4/3
  • Third Inversion--2

Example of Figured Bass Chord Notations
Figured Bass Inversions

Using Accidentals and Slashes

Accidentals are used in figured bass notation. An altered 3rd above the bass needs an accidental, and a lowered 5th needs the number 5 and the accidental, written with the flat symbol in front of the number 5.

  • The flat lowers the third above the bass, and when used with a number, it indicates to flatten or lower the right note above the bass.
  • The sharp raises the third above the bass and sharpens or raises the right note above the bass when paired with a number.
  • The natural raises or lowers (naturalizes) the third above the bass, depending on the specifics of the piece. When used with a number, the natural naturalizes the right note above the bass.
  • Slashes through figures can indicate a raised chord such as a 5th or 6th, which is a half-step up.

Figured Bass Realization

To realize a figured bass, you translate the chords that the musicians play in the figured bass into the treble clef. Although a musician can improvise the harmonies in the figured bass, singers need the harmonies written out.

Figured bass realization means 'Making it Real';truly real for singers, who sing in four-part harmony. The soprano, alto, and tenor lines are added to the bass to create this four-part vocal harmony. Then, the rules of harmony need to be followed to develop the four-parts, and a musical melody line needs to be written for the soprano voice, as the soprano sings the melody line.

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