B5 | Figured Bass

  • Figured bass is a short-hand method of telling the basso continuo (e.g. organ, harpsichord) what the chord is.
  • Figured bass shows the notes that are in the chord above the bass note.
  • The method was used extensively during the Baroque period and even as recent as some of Mozart’s works, e.g. the Requiem.

Here simply is how figured bass works:

Fig. 1

Tonic – D minor

4-3 suspension

Chord i root position

Chord i first inversion

Chord iv root position

Chord V root position

Chord i root position with 4 (G) instead of 3 (F)

Chord i root position

The first chord is the tonic, which is D-F-A.

Counting from the lowest note (the bass note), F is the interval of a third above D, and A is the interval of a fifth above D. Therefore, the letter-name of the notes in the first chord are:

A = 5
F = 3

The second chord is :

D = 6
A = 3

This is a first inversion chord.

Notice that the dominant chord (V – chord A-C#-E) includes the seventh (G). The seventh can happen anywhere above the bass note, but in figured bass it is placed higher than the fifth. It also has a sharp (#). When you see an accidental (flat or sharp) alone, it refers to the third notes in the chord, that is the middle note of the basic triad (e.g. A-C#-E, D-F#-A, G-B-D).

G = 7
E = 5
C# = #

The quotation below is an example of a chorale harmonised by J S Bach. It was commonplace during the Baroque period to leave chords in root position with no altered notes (i.e. a common chord 8/5/3) without any figuration beneath.

The symbol 6 with a line through it means that the E has been raised by half a tone, i.e. half a tone higher than the diatonic interval (it’s an E in the key-signature).

The following extract comes from the end of the first section of Mozart’s Requiem (Introitus: Requiem Aeternam). The first extract is in open score (every voice has its own line). The second is in short score format, i.e. with parts combined.

Fig. 2

In this version, the composer has chosen to show the 3rd in the chords, though marking # without the figure 3 would suffice in other editions. The line shows which notes are held over into the next chord.

Fig. 3


B5 Exercises

Composition tasks

B5 Composition tasks