What Is Figured Bass? A Complete Music Theory Guide

what-is-figured-bassFigured bass, also known as “basso continuo” or simply “continuo,” is a musical notation system that flourished during the Baroque era (approximately 1600-1750).

This system plays a crucial role in understanding Baroque music’s harmonic structure and performance practice. It represents a foundational element of Western music theory, bridging the gap between composition and improvisation.

This guide explores the concept of figured bass, its historical context, functionality, and its enduring influence on music theory and performance.

What is Figured Bass?

Figured bass is a musical notation system used during the Baroque period, where numbers and symbols beneath a bass line indicate the chords to be played above it, guiding musicians in realizing a harmonic accompaniment. This system allows for flexible interpretation and improvisation, bridging the composer’s intentions with the performer’s creativity.

These figures indicate the intervals that should be played above the bass note to form the desired chord. For example, a “6” beneath a note suggests a sixth interval should be added above the bass note, implying a first inversion triad. Absence of figures typically means a performer should play a major triad or whatever harmony is understood as default within the musical context.

Symbols and Interpretation

Figured bass symbols can denote a variety of intervals and alterations:

Numbers like 6, 4, 3, 7, etc., indicate the specific intervals to be added above the bass note.

A sharp (#) or flat (b) sign alters the interval above the bass note.

A slash through the number often means to raise the interval by a semitone.

The combination of numbers illustrates complex chords, such as “6/4” for a second inversion triad or “7” for a seventh chord.

How to Read and Write Figured Bass

Reading and writing figured bass are essential skills for musicians studying Baroque music and harmony. This guide provides a basic overview of how to interpret and notate this foundational musical system.

Understanding the Basics

Figured bass notation involves a bass line written in staff notation, with numbers and symbols written below each note. These numbers and symbols indicate the chords that should be constructed above each bass note, essentially serving as shorthand for harmonic progressions.

Reading Figured Bass

Identify the Bass Note: The first step is to identify the bass note given in the staff notation. This note serves as the foundation for the chord.

Interpret the Figures: Numbers below the bass note indicate the intervals that should be added above it. Common figures include:

No figures: Play a major triad based on the bass note in the context of the key signature.

6: Indicates a first inversion triad (third in the bass).

4 3: Suggests a second inversion triad (fifth in the bass).

7: Calls for a seventh chord, with the seventh interval above the bass note.

6 5, 4 3, 4 2: Denote various seventh chord inversions.

Alterations: Symbols like sharp (#), flat (b), or natural (♮) signs next to the numbers indicate that the interval should be altered accordingly.

Slash through Numbers: A slash through a number (e.g., 6̸) typically means to raise the interval by a semitone.

Writing Figured Bass

Start with a Bass Line: Write a bass line that serves as the foundation of your harmonic progression.

Determine the Chords: Decide on the chords you want to build above each bass note. Consider the chord’s inversion and any alterations you wish to include.

Add Figures: Below each bass note, add the appropriate figures based on the chords you’ve chosen. Remember:

Use “6” for first inversion, “6 4” for second inversion, and so on.

Indicate seventh chords with “7” and their inversions with “6 5,” “4 3,” or “4 2.”

Apply sharp, flat, or natural signs for necessary alterations.

Simplify Figures: In some cases, certain figures are assumed and not always written. For example, a third above the bass note is often implied and not always marked. Familiarize yourself with common practices to avoid overcomplicating your notation.

Practice and Application

Reading and writing figured bass proficiently requires practice and familiarity with harmonic conventions.

Start with simple progressions and gradually introduce more complex chords and inversions. Analyzing Baroque compositions and practicing realizations of figured bass lines on a keyboard can significantly enhance your understanding and skills.

Engaging with this system not only improves your grasp of harmony but also deepens your appreciation for the compositional techniques of the Baroque period, enriching your overall musicianship.

What Do the Numbers Mean in Figured Bass?

In figured bass notation, the numbers represent intervals that should be built above the given bass note, creating specific chords and harmonies. This system, used extensively during the Baroque period, serves as a shorthand for musicians to realize a harmonic structure based on the bass line. Here’s what the numbers generally mean:

No number: When no number is written, it typically implies a triad in root position should be played, with the intervals of a third and a fifth above the bass note, according to the key signature or any accidental directly in front of the bass note.

6: This indicates a first inversion triad, where the third of the chord is in the bass. The number 6 refers to the interval of a sixth above the bass note, completing the triad.

64 (or 6/4): Signifies a second inversion triad, with the fifth of the chord in the bass. The numbers represent the intervals of a fourth and a sixth above the bass note, forming the full chord.

7: A 7 indicates a seventh chord in root position. You should play the third, fifth, and seventh intervals above the bass note to form the chord.

65 (or 6/5): Denotes the first inversion of a seventh chord, with the third of the chord in the bass. The figures instruct players to add intervals of a fifth and a sixth, along with a third above the bass note.

43 (or 4/3): This figure signals the second inversion of a seventh chord, where the fifth of the chord is in the bass. The intervals of a third and a fourth above the bass note are to be played.

42 (or 4/2): Indicates a third inversion of a seventh chord, with the seventh of the chord in the bass. The numbers represent the intervals of a second and a fourth above the bass note, completing the chord.


Sharp (#) or Flat (b): When placed next to a number, these symbols indicate that the specified interval should be raised or lowered by a semitone, respectively.

Slash through a number: A slash through a number (e.g., 6̸) typically means the interval should be raised by a semitone.

Practical Use:

Understanding these numbers allows performers, particularly those playing the basso continuo (harpsichord, organ, lute, etc.), to realize the harmonic structure intended by the composer or to improvise harmonies in accordance with Baroque practices.

Mastery of figured bass notation is crucial for musicians studying Baroque music, as it enhances their ability to interpret and perform the repertoire authentically.

Performance Practice

In performance, musicians playing the continuo part read the bassline and interpret the figures to realize a harmonic accompaniment.

This process requires not only a solid understanding of harmony and counterpoint but also creativity and stylistic awareness.

The figured bass system encourages a collaborative effort between the composer’s intentions and the performer’s interpretation, making each performance unique.

Accidentals in Figured Bass

Accidentals in figured bass notation play a crucial role in specifying the exact intervals that should be played above the bass note, thereby altering the harmonies and chords in a precise manner.

These accidentals modify the intervals indicated by the numbers in the figured bass and are essential for performing Baroque music with accuracy and stylistic integrity. Here’s a guide to understanding how accidentals are used in figured bass:

Types of Accidentals

Sharp (#): A sharp sign before a figure raises the indicated interval by a semitone. For example, if the figure is #3, it means that the third above the bass note should be raised by a semitone.

Flat (b): A flat sign before a figure lowers the indicated interval by a semitone. For instance, a b3 suggests that the third above the bass note should be lowered by a semitone.

Natural (♮): A natural sign is used to cancel any sharps or flats that might naturally occur due to the key signature or previous accidentals. A natural sign before a figure means the interval should be played as a natural, or unaltered, note.

Placement and Interpretation

Accidentals are placed directly before the number they modify. They apply only to that specific figure and do not carry over to subsequent chords unless reiterated.

In some cases, accidentals can apply to more than one interval if the context or a horizontal line extending from the accidental implies it. However, this practice varies and is more common in certain historical contexts.

Examples of Usage

A figure written as “♯6” indicates that the sixth above the bass note should be raised by a semitone.

A figure with “♭7” signifies that the seventh above the bass note should be lowered by a semitone, suggesting a minor seventh interval from the bass note.

When a chord requires alteration of more than one interval, each altered interval is marked with its own accidental, such as “♯4 3” for a chord with the fourth raised by a semitone and a natural third.

Historical Context

Figured bass emerged in the early 17th century as part of the Baroque movement, a period marked by dramatic expressions in art, architecture, and music.

It was developed to provide a harmonic framework for accompaniment instruments, such as the harpsichord, organ, or lute, facilitating real-time improvisation over a written bass line.

This system allowed composers to specify harmonic structures without writing out every note of the accompaniment, enabling a flexible and expressive approach to performance.

Legacy and Influence

While figured bass fell out of common usage after the Baroque period, its principles continue to influence classical music education, especially in the study of harmony and counterpoint.

Understanding figured bass equips musicians with the skills to analyze and realize complex harmonic structures, enhancing their interpretative and improvisational abilities. It also offers invaluable insights into Baroque compositions, enabling performers to engage more deeply with the music of composers like Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi.


Figured bass stands as a testament to the innovative spirit of the Baroque era, embodying the period’s emphasis on emotional expression, harmonic exploration, and the integration of composition with improvisation.

For students and practitioners of music theory, mastering figured bass is not only an academic exercise but a doorway to the rich musical traditions of the past, enriching their understanding and appreciation of Western classical music.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does figured bass differ from modern chord symbols?

Figured bass notation specifies intervals above a bass note using numbers and accidentals, guiding performers to realize a harmonic texture over a bass line, predominantly used in the Baroque period. In contrast, modern chord symbols indicate chords directly, providing the chord’s root and quality (e.g., Cmaj7, Gmin) for immediate use in various musical styles without specifying inversions or specific voicings.

Can figured bass notation be used for instruments other than keyboard?

While figured bass was originally designed for keyboard instruments like the harpsichord and organ to accompany melodies in Baroque music, its principles can also guide melodic improvisation and harmonic support on other chordal instruments, such as guitar or lute, fostering a deeper understanding of Baroque harmony and improvisation techniques.

Why is figured bass important for understanding Baroque music?

Figured bass is crucial for understanding Baroque music as it provides insight into the harmonic framework and stylistic practices of the period, allowing musicians to authentically realize the accompaniment patterns and harmonic textures intended by composers, thereby bridging the gap between written notation and performance practice.

How do musicians interpret incomplete or missing figures in figured bass notation?

In the absence of figures or incomplete figured bass notation, musicians rely on their knowledge of Baroque harmony and the context of the piece to fill in the missing information, often defaulting to the most common chords or harmonies implied by the bass line and the piece’s key signature, ensuring a stylistically appropriate realization.

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