Figured Bass

A music notation system commonly used during the Baroque period

"Figured Bass" is a musical notation system used during the Baroque period to indicate harmonies and accompaniment for keyboard instruments and other instruments playing in an ensemble. Figured bass provides a framework of numbers and symbols below a bassline to guide musicians in creating harmonies and chord progressions in real-time, allowing for improvisation and embellishment.

During the Baroque era, composers often provided a bassline accompanied by figures (numbers and symbols) beneath it in their scores. These figures represented the intervals and chord qualities that should be played above the bassline to create harmonies. Musicians skilled in figured bass interpretation, known as continuo players, used these figures as a guide to improvise and fill in the harmonies according to the conventions of the time.

For example, a "6" might indicate that the musician should play a sixth interval above the bass note, and a "4 3" might indicate a seventh chord in first inversion. Figured bass notation allowed for flexibility and creativity in realizing harmonies, making each performance unique.

Figured bass was commonly used in keyboard music, such as harpsichord or organ, as well as in ensembles where a bass instrument (like cello or bassoon) and a harmony instrument (like lute or harp) played together. The continuo player would read the bassline and figures, while improvising the appropriate harmonies and filling in the texture. This practice contributed to the rich and ornamented sound characteristic of Baroque music.

While figured bass notation has become less common in modern music, its principles have influenced the understanding of harmony and chord progressions, and it remains an important aspect of historical performance practice.

Example of Figured Bass

How Do You Figure? A Guide To Figured Bass