Author Topic: Figured Bass  (Read 2203 times)

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Figured Bass
« on: December 21, 2014, 03:42:38 PM »
I was reading about figured bass today and just wanted some clarification on what I was reading. I was took counterpoint 40 years ago and used figured bass in our composition but really haven't used it since so I forgot alot of what I learned.

From what I remember, we use Roman numbers to designate the relation of the notes in the triad to the bottom note in the chord.

If it is in first inversion, the figured bass would be 6/3 (the root of the chord on top and fifth of the chord above the 3rd). if it is is the second inversion, figured bassed would be 6/4 (the 3rd of the chord is the top note and the root of the chord is the 2nd note). The of course, if you add the 7th, would have 6/5/3 (1st); 6/4/3 (2nd) and 6/4/2 (or 2).

Does the figured bass notation change from closed position to open position -- moving the E in the C Triad up an octave so it is now a 10th about the root or moving the G up an octave so it is a 12th above the root?

If there was some mechanism in place like this how would the performer know the exact pitches the composer wanted to be performed?

I remember using figured bass when we were studying the Bach chorales.


perpetuo studens

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Re: Figured Bass
« Reply #1 on: December 22, 2014, 02:07:39 PM »
I was expecting one of the more knowledgeable members to respond, and I'm sure they will, but in their (temporary) absence let me share what little I know:

  • Roman numerals are not strictly speaking part of figured bass notation.
They refer to the position/function of a chord, based on the chord's tonic, within the current harmonic context, regardless of the note in the bass. Note that some theorists play a little fast and loose with these indications (IMO :)). For example, Piston will often notate a VII diminished 7th chord as a V. While it's true (and obvious both visually and aurally) that this chord is often functioning as a dominant (ie. producing an expectation of a return to tonic harmony), my thought is that it blurs understanding of the chord's "position" in the world and the colouration it adds to the context - while the high-level function of VIIdim in root position is the same a V6, they sure don't sound the same to me :)). But of course I have it all figured out so I can criticize Piston (not :)).
  • Figured bass lines indicate only the intervals above the bass, and do not say anything about the order of these intervals. So it is not necessarily the case, for example, the root of a chord will be in the soprano in a 6/3 chord. Also, for the purposes of figured bass realization, compound intervals are considered '; identical'; ie. a 3rd can be played/written as a tenth and the figuration is not affected. Similarly a figured 9th may be expressed as a second.

I mentioned the Aldwell & Schachter books in another thread. They really helped me wrap my head around this stuff.


The perceived not a sum of elements to be distinguished from each other and analyzed discretely, but a pattern, that is to say a form, a structure: the element's existence does not precede the existence of the whole, it comes neither before nor after it, for the parts do not determine the pattern, but the pattern determines the parts: knowledge of the pattern and of its laws, of the set and its structure, could not possibly be derived from discrete knowledge of the elements that compose it.

That means that you can look at a piece of a puzzle for three whole days, you can believe that you know all there is to know about its colouring and its shape, and be no further ahead than when you started. The only thing that counts is the ability to link this piece to other pieces...

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Re: Figured Bass
« Reply #2 on: December 22, 2014, 05:10:29 PM »
Thanks Jamie, this was my understanding as well. I was just wondering if there was something that I was missing.

I do have the Piston book on counterpoint as well (the same book I was in college 40 years ago).