figured bass

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Related to figured basses: basso continuo, Thorough-bass

figured bass

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).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

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.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.