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Figured bass might look a bit mysterious if you've never seen it before. Even if you have heard of it, you might think it's rather strange. Let's find out what figured bass is all about. This is what it looks like - the figured bass is the little numbers written underneath the lower stave:
Figured bass is a shorthand method of composing. It was invented during the Baroque period (about 1600-1750). In those days, composers only wrote out a melody and a bass line (and not any of the middle parts). The melody was played (or sung) by a soloist, and the bass line was usually played on a keyboard instrument, such as the harpsichord or organ. Obviously, the keyboard player needed to do a bit more than just play the bass line with his or her left hand, but where was the rest of the music? Well, he or she had to improvise! The composer added small numbers underneath the bass line, like a kind of code, which told the player which chords to play. However, this code (which is the "figured bass") didn't tell the player exactly how to play the chords - for example, they could choose to play them as solid chords, broken chords or could weave them into heavily decorated individual voice lines. In fact, keyboard players in those days were judged on their ability to create amazing improvisations from a figured bass - and of course, the same piece of music would be played in totally different ways by different musicians. Don't worry though - in grade six theory you only need to write out the chords in their most basic forms - you don't need to add melodic decoration or anything fancy! In the modern world, you can find a similar kind of thing in sheet music for pop songs. Have you ever seen a tune written out with chord markings for piano or guitar? The accompanist uses the suggested chords, but plays them in whatever way they feel like. Figured bass is just the same, except that there are a few rules you have to obey the rules of harmony. Figured bass is hardly ever used today except in music theory exams, or in early music
alto. We will write all our chords as 4-note chords. and actually it's quite simple to get the hang of. in order to create a chord. The single most important thing to remember about figured bass is that the bass line shows you the lowest note. rather than writing. Never. So why is it tested? Well.groups. we will talk about writing here because we are training you for an exam. . we call them “5-3”.) The numbers in figured bass tell you what chord to build up from the bass note. tenor and bass. creating 4 independent voices – soprano. there are three figures which you need to know. you'll be pleased to know! So let's get started! Understanding Figured Bass The Figures Figured bass is written underneath the bass line. it's been part of the study of music theory for hundreds of years and it's an excellent way to test your knowledge of harmony. ever write a chord note which is lower than the bass note. “6-3” and “6-4”. (Note. and in which inversion. although figured bass is really all about playing and improvising. (Sometimes a bass line with figures is called a "continuo". it's still a useful way of referring to chords and chord progressions quickly. and that you must build a chord upwards from that note. Figured bass is a compulsory part of Grade Six Theory. Each number tells you the interval above the bass note which you need to write. after all!) In Grade 6. Although no one composes using figured bass any more.
or in which octave. From the bass note. sometimes the 5-3 figure is left out.) Because root position chords are so very common. it means it's a 5-3 or root position chord. Only the bass note is fixed. so one of the notes is doubled. In a 5-3 chord. But. but you are also allowed to double the 5th. write the note a third higher. we could write either of these two chords: We have written a four-note chord. B is the root of the chord. Remember that the exact position of the notes of the chord are up to the performer. it doesn't matter at all what order we write the notes of the chord. the root is the most common note to double. (the “root” is the lowest note of the triad). and then the note a fifth higher. In both these examples.5-3 5-3 means root position. we have doubled the B (there are two Bs in each chord). (It does not mean that you can write any chord you want!) . For example. If you see a bass note without any numbers at all. It’s better not to double the 3rd in most cases. (SeeRule 3a – Doubling for more details about this.
The notes we need to write are a third and a sixth above the bass note. A-C-E). 3rd and 5th. You could also double the “5th” or “3” (E). In the second example. or as they are written on the stave (C-E-A). Some examples of 6-3 chords: In a 6-3 chord. the “root” or “6” (A) is doubled). which is A minor in the first inversion. The notes on the stave are the bass note. . you are allowed to double any of the chord notes to make a 4-note chord. In the first example. The figure 6 means first inversion. A triad has a root. Because 6-3 chords are also very common. the “3rd” or “bass note” (C) is doubled. the 6 and the 3. (e. Our chord notes are C-E-A. The figured bass tells us to add the notes E (a third above C) and A (a sixth above C).6-3 A 6-3 chord is a first inversion chord.g. We can talk about the chord notes as if they are triads. sometimes they are just written as 6 instead of 6-3. Here the bass note is C.
In a 6-4 chord you should always double the bass note (5th) of the chord. The rules of doubling are very important and need to be learned. The notes we need to write are a fourth and a sixth higher than the bass note. . The figured bass tells us to add F (a fourth above C) and A (a sixth above C). Here the bass note is C. More information can be found in Rule 3a – Doubling. The chord notes are C-F-A.6-4 A 6-4 chord is a second inversion chord. which is F major in second inversion.
The chord notes will be F#. The chord notes will be C#. F# and A#. then it refers to the 3rd of the chord. . = sharpen the 6th. For example: = sharpen the 3rd. A# and C#. but just appears on its own.Chromatic Alteration You can add sharps and flats to figured bass. If the accidental is not next to a number. The accidental is written next to the number which it affects.
root position chord with a sharpened third.A# . so you can easily see what we’re talking about. where the dominant chord has a sharpened third which does not appear in the key signature. the dominant chord is E major. No numbers = 5-3. 1. No numbers = 5-3. Each note is numbered (1-5). (Don’t worry about their exact positions on the stave for now!) Then check your answers below. Look at each note and try to work out which three other chord notes you would need to write down. 3. First Realization of Figured Bass Here’s one bar of figured bass which uses everything we’ve learned so far. 2. It means "don't change the chord!". B . with a G sharp accidental.Chromatic alteration is very common in minor keys.D . Lines Horizontal lines in figured bass mean that the same harmony applies to two or more notes. . For example in A minor. F# .C#. root position chord.. We’ll go through it step by step. Line = hold the previous chord.F#.
This is also known as the "6-4 . our ears and brains feel very satisfied. 5-3. because we've had to wait just a tiny bit longer to hear the tonic. and the 4 ALWAYS moves to 3. the B falls to A# in the 5-3 chord (tenor line). 6-4 = second inversion chord. 5. In a cadential 6-4. D . V7). they are written as 6-4. The Cadential 6-4 When we use the chords Ic-Va-Ia.4.B . 6 = 6-3. to finish off with a cadential 6-4: Notice how the chord notes move: in the 6-4 chord.g. Let's add a bar to the previous example.D. F# . the 6 ALWAYS moves to 5.B . The D in the 6-4 chord moves to C# in the 5-3 chord (soprano line).F#. and notate them in figured bass. first inversion chord. because there is a very strong emphasis on the dominant note in the bass for two chords (Ic and Va) instead of just one (e. .5-3 progression" or cadential 6-4. 5-3. When the final Ia chord is finally reached. Cadential 6-4s work really well at the end of a piece. This is one of the very few chord progressions where you are allowed to use a second inversion chord.
it will be a passing 6-4. notated in the normal way with "6"). and the second chord is always notated "5-3" instead of being left blank. (It could also be a first inversion chord. because the bass note is the same for both chords (F# in this case). There are many variants. but will be left blank if it's a root position chord. The bass will move by step. but the bass note of the following chord is different. The Passing 6-4 If you see a 6-4 chord notated.You can easily spot a cadential 6-4. Here's an example of a passing 6-4 notated in figured bass: . You can spot a passing 6-4 because the chord following the 6-4 will not be notated "5-3". The rules for voice-leading in a passing 6-4 just follow the normal rules of harmony.
Here's an example of a passing 6-4 notated in figured bass: .
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