figured bass

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figured bass,

in music, a system of shorthand notation in which figures are written below the notes of the bass part to indicate the chords to be played. Called also thorough bass and basso continuo, it arose in the early 17th cent. in Italy as a means of notating an accompaniment. It soon became so widespread that the baroque era is sometimes called the age of basso continuo. The harpsichord's part in sonatas was indicated by a figured bass, and the harpsichord and the organ are usually played from a figured bass in the vocal works of Bach and Handel. The realization of the basso continuo involves considerable improvisation, varying in style according to composer and period. Both Bach and Mozart wrote out rules for playing the figured bass. After the time of Bach, with the development of the symphony, the figured bass disappeared except for limited use in opera and as a device for teaching harmony.


See F. T. Arnold, The Art of Accompaniment from a Thorough-Bass (1931, repr. 1965); H. Keller, Thoroughbass Method (tr. by C. Parrish, 1965).

Figured Bass


(general bass [German, Generalbass; Italian, basso generale], thorough bass [Italian, basso continuo]), a simplified method of writing down harmonies, by which figures indicating corresponding intervals in the higher voices are placed under the bass voice. The term may also refer to the marked bass voice itself, which is used in this method of notating harmonies.

The figured bass arose in Italy at the end of the 16th century in the practice of organ and harpsichord accompaniment. An organist or harpsichordist playing from the figured bass had the opportunity to improvise the accompaniment on the basis of the given harmonies. The origin of the figured bass was connected with the development of homophony in European music. In the beginning of the 17th century the use of the figured bass spread rapidly throughout Europe. All organists and conductors were expected to be able to perform from a figured bass. The period during which it became widespread in Europe (roughly 1600-1750) has often been called the age of the figured bass. Examples of the figured bass can be found in the works of C. Monteverdi, A. Corelli, A. Scarlatti, J. S. Bach, G. F. Handel, G. Pergolesi, and other composers. Toward the mid-18th century, when the development of musical art had resulted in the rejection of unspecified or approximate accompaniment and the role of improvisation as a performing art had been reduced to a minimum, the figured bass fell out of use. However, it held its own for a long time in the field of music training, where it was considered a discipline that cultivated skills involved in performing centuries-old music. The old theory on the construction and joining of chords also bore the name “figured bass.”


Kolbe, O. Kratkoe rukovodstvo k izucheniiu general-basa. Warsaw, 1864. (Translated from German.)
Ivanov-Boretskii, M. V. Muzykal’no-istoricheskaia khrestomatiia, revised ed., vols. 1-2. Moscow, 1933-36.
Arnold, F. The Art of Accompaniment From a Thorough-bass as Practised in the 17-18 Centuries, vols. 1-2. New York, 1965.


References in periodicals archive ?
The scoring for the voices is smooth and interesting, but only the figured bass line is given for the accompaniment--truly a scholarly edition with probably limited performance use, except for expert Baroque keyboard players.
The sequence of constructions may seem a little strange, but it will be seen to model figured bass reasonably well: the bass is usually doubled an octave below and forms directed intervals with the upper voices, the upper voices can show up in any octave they please and form undirected interva ls with each other, and the construction is tolerant if the bass passes over the tenor.
The writing is sometimes idiomatic for the instrument, and sometimes looks as if a chamber work has been transcribed; the use of figured bass numbers is a rather clear indication that his approach also relied on at least some of the performers being schooled in the art of basso continuo.
His pupils were advised in particular against accompanying from a figured bass, because figures, to his mind, were incapable of reliably indicating in which part of a polyphonic texture the consonances and dissonances occur.
1968), so that performers who need a realization will find it, while the others can read directly from solo line and figured bass in score.
Theoretical evidence occurs often in retrospect, perhaps by its nature: evidence for the realization of figured bass on the cello is no exception.
The section for Chapter One (early baroque) contains divisions for primary sources, general sources, accompaniment instruments, figured bass, pitch, vibrato, historical pronunciation, Italian: Dispositione and ornamentation, Italian: General, English and French.
Mitchell wrote: `The extemporaneous realization of a figured bass is a dead art.
The new "scientific" style of music, on the other hand, was based on a fully developed functional harmony, including figured bass, and late-eighteenth-century notions of voice leading and treble dominance.
Figured bass, which was merely a short-hand notion for guiding a keyboard player
Bach's continuo playing stress his talent for introducing imitations and countermelodies into his realization of the figured bass.
Pears provided English translations for the German texts, and the figured bass realization was by Britten.