Figured Bass

Figured bass is a notation shorthand that shows you how to add pitches above a given bass line. in the Baroque period, composer added these numbers below a bass line so a chordal instrumentalist (harpsichord) could improvise accurate harmonies. Doesn’t that sound a lot like the purpose of leadsheet chord symbols?

We use figured bass as we learn harmonization and part writing, so here are the basic figures we need to make it through the theory sequence.

How It Works

Following the key signature, each number tells us an interval to add above the bass. Since this is a shorthand, the standard figures are often abbreviations. In the examples below, the standard figure is the abbreviated form we will see most often, while the full figure shows all of the notes that are implied by the standard one.

Note that I have doubled pitches and used compound intervals as I felt like it.

Adding Accidentals

We can add accidentals in various ways.

  • Accidental next to a number: that interval above the bass needs that accidental.
  • Plus sign or Slash: raise that interval above the bass by a half step.
  • Accidental with no number: apply that accidental to a third above the bass.

Melodic Figures

There are times when we want a specific melodic gesture to occur in one or more voices above the bass. We add lines between figures to show these melodic gestures. Make sure you follow them.