Figured bass

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Melody from the opening of Henry Purcell's "Thy Hand, Belinda", Dido and Aeneas (1689) with figured bass below (
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,
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with figured bass realization). Purcell diatonic chromaticism.png
Melody from the opening of Henry Purcell's "Thy Hand, Belinda", Dido and Aeneas (1689) with figured bass below ( Loudspeaker.svg Play  , Loudspeaker.svg Play   with figured bass realization).

Figured bass, also called thoroughbass, is a kind of musical notation in which numerals and symbols (often accidentals) indicate intervals, chords, and non-chord tones that a musician playing piano, harpsichord, organ, lute (or other instruments capable of playing chords) play in relation to the bass note that these numbers and symbols appear above or below. Figured bass is closely associated with basso continuo, a historically improvised accompaniment used in almost all genres of music in the Baroque period of Classical music (c. 1600–1750), though rarely in modern music.

Contents

Other systems for denoting or representing chords include [1] plain staff notation, used in classical music; Roman numerals, commonly used in harmonic analysis; [2] chord letters, sometimes used in modern musicology; the Nashville Number System; and various chord names and symbols used in jazz and popular music (e.g., C Major or simply C; D minor, Dm, or D; G7, etc.).

Basso continuo

Basso continuo parts, almost universal[ citation needed ] in the Baroque era (1600–1750), provided the harmonic structure of the music by supplying a bassline and a chord progression. The phrase is often shortened to continuo, and the instrumentalists playing the continuo part are called the continuo group.

A harpsichordist and a bassist play continuo for a small group of singers. Soloquartet and strings.jpg
A harpsichordist and a bassist play continuo for a small group of singers.

The makeup of the continuo group is often left to the discretion of the performers (or, for a large performance, the conductor), and practice varied enormously within the Baroque period. At least one instrument capable of playing chords must be included, such as a piano, harpsichord, organ, lute, theorbo, guitar, regal, or harp. In addition,[ citation needed ] any number of instruments that play in the bass register may be included, such as cello, double bass, bass viol, or bassoon. The most common combination, at least in modern performances, is harpsichord and cello for instrumental works and secular vocal works, such as operas, and organ and cello for sacred music. A double bass may be added, particularly when accompanying a lower-pitched solo voice (e.g., a bass singer).

Typically performers match the instrument families used in the full ensemble: including bassoon when the work includes oboes or other winds, but restricting it to cello and/or[ citation needed ] double bass if only strings are involved. Harps, lutes, and other handheld instruments are more typical of early 17th-century music. Sometimes instruments are specified by the composer: in L'Orfeo (1607) Monteverdi calls for an exceptionally varied instrumentation, with multiple harpsichords and lutes with a bass violin in the pastoral scenes followed by lamenting to the accompaniment of organo di legno and chitarrone , while Charon stands watch to the sound of a regal.

The keyboard (or other chord-playing instrument) player realizes (adds in an improvised fashion) a continuo part by playing, in addition to the notated bass line, notes above it to complete chords, either determined ahead of time or improvised in performance. The figured bass notation, described below, is a guide, but performers are also expected to use their musical judgment and the other instruments or voices (notably the lead melody and any accidentals that might be present in it) as a guide. Experienced players sometimes incorporate motives found in the other instrumental parts into their improvised chordal accompaniment. Modern editions of such music usually supply a realized keyboard part, fully written out in staff notation for a player, in place of improvisation. With the rise in historically informed performance, however, the number of performers who are able to improvise their parts from the figures, as Baroque players would have done, has increased.[ citation needed ]

Basso continuo, though an essential structural and identifying element of the Baroque period, rapidly declined in the classical period (up to around 1800). [3] A late example is C. P. E. Bach's Concerto in D minor for flute, strings and basso continuo (1747). Examples of its use in the 19th century are rarer, but they do exist: masses by Anton Bruckner, Beethoven, and Franz Schubert, for example, have a basso continuo part that was for an organist.[ citation needed ]

Figured bass notation

A part notated with figured bass consists of a bass line notated with notes on a musical staff plus added numbers and accidentals (or in some cases (back)slashes added to a number) beneath the staff to indicate what intervals above the bass notes should be played, and therefore which inversions of which chords are to be played.

The phrase tasto solo indicates that only the bass line (without any upper chords) is to be played for a short period, usually until the next figure is encountered. This instructs the chord-playing instrumentalist not to play any improvised chords for a period. The reason tasto solo had to be specified was because it was an accepted convention that if no figures were present in a section of otherwise figured bass line, the chord-playing performer would either assume that it was a root-position triad, or deduce from the harmonic motion that another figure was implied. For example, if a continuo part in the key of C begins with a C bass note in the first measure, which descends to a B in the second measure, even if there were no figures, the chord-playing instrumentalist would deduce that this was most likely a first inversion dominant chord (spelled B–D–G, from bottom note of the chord to the top).

Composers were inconsistent in the usages described below. Especially in the 17th century, the numbers were omitted whenever the composer thought the chord was obvious. Early composers such as Claudio Monteverdi often specified the octave by the use of compound intervals such as 10, 11, and 15.

Numbers

Common Conventional Symbols for Figured Bass
Triads
InversionIntervals
above bass
SymbolExample
Root position 5
3
None
Figured bass
1st inversion 6
3
6
2nd inversion 6
4
6
4
Seventh chords
InversionIntervals
above bass
SymbolExample
Root position75
3
 
7
Figured bass
1st inversion65
3
 
6
5
2nd inversion64
3
 
4
3
3rd inversion 64
2
 
4
2
or 2

Contemporary figured bass abbreviations for triads and seventh chords are shown in the table to the right.

The numbers indicate the number of scale steps above the given bass-line that a note should be played. [4] For example:

Figured bass

Here, the bass note is a C, and the numbers 4 and 6 indicate that notes a fourth and a sixth above it should be played, that is an F and an A. In other words, the second inversion of an F major chord can be realized as:

Figured bass

In cases where the numbers 3 or 5 would normally be understood, these are usually left out. For example:

Figured bass

has the same meaning as

Figured bass

and can be realized as

Figured bass

although the performer may choose which octave to play the notes in and will often elaborate them in some way, such as by playing them as arpeggios rather than as block chords, or by adding improvised ornaments, depending on the tempo and texture of the music.

Sometimes, other numbers are omitted: a 2 on its own or 4
2
indicates 64
2
 
, for example. From the figured bass-writer's perspective, this bass note is obviously a third inversion seventh chord, so the sixth interval is viewed as an interval that the player should automatically infer. In many cases entire figures can be left out, usually where the chord is obvious from the progression or the melody.

Sometimes the chord changes but the bass note itself is held. In these cases the figures for the new chord are written wherever in the bar they are meant to occur.

Figured bass
can be realized as
Figured bass

When the bass note changes but the notes in the chord above it are to be held, a line is drawn next to the figure or figures, for as long as the chord is to be held, to indicate this:

Figured bass
can be realized as
Figured bass

Note that when the bass moves the chord intervals have effectively changed, in this case from 6
3
to 7
4
, but no additional numbers are written.

Accidentals

When an accidental is shown on its own without a number, it applies to the note a third above the lowest note; most commonly, this is the third of the chord. [5] Otherwise, if a number is shown, the accidental affects the said interval. [4] For example, this, showing the widespread default meaning of an accidental without number as applying to the third above the bass:

Figured bass
can be realized as
Figured bass

Sometimes the accidental is placed after the number rather than before it.

Alternatively, a cross placed next to a number indicates that the pitch of that note should be raised (augmented) by a semitone (so that if it is normally a flat it becomes a natural, and if it is normally a natural it becomes a sharp). A different way to indicate this is to draw a backslash through the number itself. [5] The following three notations, therefore, all indicate the same thing:

Figured bass
can all be realized as
Figured bass

More rarely, a forward slash through a number indicates that a pitch is to be lowered (diminished) by a semitone: [ citation needed ]

Figured bass
can both be realized as
Figured bass

When sharps or flats are used with key signatures, they may have a slightly different meaning, especially in 17th-century music. A sharp might be used to cancel a flat in the key signature, or vice versa, instead of a natural sign.

Example in context

An example of figured bass in context. Taken from Beschrankt, ihr Weisen, by J. S. Bach (BWV 443).
Play (help*info) Figured bass example from BWV 443.png
An example of figured bass in context. Taken from Beschränkt, ihr Weisen, by J. S. Bach (BWV 443). Loudspeaker.svg Play  

History

Improvised organ accompaniments for choral works were common by the late 16th century, and separate organ parts showing only a bass line date back to at least 1587. In the mid-16th century, some Italian church composers began to write polychoral works. These pieces, for two or more choirs, were created in recognition of particularly festive occasions, or else to take advantage of certain architectural properties of the buildings in which they were performed which created natural reverberation. With eight or more polyphonic voice parts to keep track of in performance, works in polychoral style required some sort of instrumental accompaniment. They were also known as cori spezzati, since the choirs were structured in musically independent or interlocking parts, and may sometimes also have been placed in physically different locations.

The concept of allowing two or more concurrently performing choirs to be independent structurally would probably not have arisen had there not been an already existing practice of choral accompaniment in church.[ citation needed ] Financial and administrative records indicate the presence of organs in churches dates back to the 15th century, although their precise use is not known. Many first-person accounts of church services from the 15th and 16th centuries imply organ accompaniment in some portions of the liturgy, as well as indicating that the unaccompanied practice of the Cappella Sistina was somewhat unusual. By early in the 16th century, it seems that accompaniment by organ at least in smaller churches was commonplace, and commentators of the time lamented on occasion the declining quality of church choirs. Even more tellingly, many manuscripts, especially from the middle of the century and later, feature written-out organ accompaniments. It is this last observation which leads directly to the foundations of continuo practice, in a somewhat similar one called basso seguente or "following bass".

Written-out accompaniments are found most often in early polychoral works (those composed, obviously, before the onset of concerted style and its explicit instrumental lines), and generally consist of a complete reduction (to what would later be called the "grand staff") of one choir's parts. In addition to this, however, for those parts of the music during which that choir rested was presented a single line consisting of the lowest note being sung at any given time, which could be in any vocal part. Even in early concerted works by the Gabrielis (Andrea and Giovanni), Monteverdi and others, the lowest part, that which modern performers colloquially call "continuo", is actually a "basso seguente", though slightly different, since with separate instrumental parts, the lowest note of the moment in the instrumental parts is often lower than any being sung.

The first known published instance of a basso seguente was a book of Introits and Alleluias by the Venetian Placido Falconio from 1575. What is known as "figured" continuo, which also features a bass line that because of its structural nature may differ from the lowest note in the upper parts, developed over the next quarter-century. The composer Lodovico Viadana is often credited with the first publication of such a continuo, in a 1602 collection of motets that according to his own account had been originally written in 1594. Viadana's continuo, however, did not include figures. The earliest extant part with sharp and flat signs above the staff is a motet by Giovanni Croce, also from 1594.

Following and figured basses developed concurrently in secular music; such madrigal (a song style) composers as Emilio de' Cavalieri and Luzzasco Luzzaschi began in the late 16th century to write works explicitly for a soloist with accompaniment, following an already standing practice of performing multi-voice madrigals this way, and also responding to the rising influence at certain aristocratic courts of featuring popular individual singers. This tendency toward solo-with-accompaniment texture in secular vocal music (non-religious music) culminated in the genre of monody, just as in sacred vocal music it resulted in the sacred concerto for various forces including few voices and even solo voices. The use of numerals to indicate accompanying sonorities in accompaniment parts began with the earliest operas, composed by Cavalieri and Giulio Caccini.

These new genres, just as the polychoral one probably was, were indeed made possible by the existence of a semi- or fully independent bass line. In turn, the separate bass line, with figures added above to indicate other chordal notes, shortly became "functional", as the sonorities became "harmonies", (see harmony and tonality), and music came to be seen in terms of a melody supported by chord progressions (homophony), rather than interlocking, equally important lines that are used in polyphony. The figured bass, therefore, was integral to the development of the Baroque, by extension the ”classical” style, which built on the innovations of the Baroque era, and by further extension most subsequent musical styles.

As part of the new galant style in the mid-18th century, with its emphasis on lighter and more varied textures, and singable melodies, orchestral music gradually phased out the basso continuo, and solo-with-accompaniment textures increasingly featured fully written-out accompaniments. By the second half of the 18th century, figured bass was almost entirely eliminated, except in sacred choral music, where it lingered until well after 1800.[ citation needed ]

Many composers and theorists of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries wrote "how-to guides" for chord-playing musicians, to aid them in realizing figured bass notation, including Gregor Aichinger, Filippo Bonaffino, Friedrich Erhard Niedt, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Georg Philipp Telemann, C. P. E. Bach, and Michael Praetorius.

Contemporary uses

In the 20th and 21st century, figured bass is also sometimes used by classical musicians as a shorthand way of indicating chords when a composer is sketching out ideas for a new piece or when a music student is analyzing the harmony of a notated piece of music (e.g., a Bach chorale or a Chopin piano prelude). Figured bass is not generally used in modern musical compositions, except for neo-Baroque pieces. A form of figured bass is used in notation of accordion music; another simplified form is used to notate guitar chords.[ citation needed ] In the 2000s, outside of professional Baroque ensembles that specialize in the performance practice of the Baroque era, the most common use of figured bass notation is to indicate the inversion in a harmonic analysis or composer's sketch context, however, often without the staff notation, using letter note names followed with the figure. For instance, if a piano piece had a C major triad in the right hand (C–E–G), with the bass note a G with the left hand, this would be a second inversion C major chord, which would be written G6
4
. If this same C major triad had an E in the bass, it would be a first inversion chord, which would be written E6
3
or E6 (this is different from the jazz notation, where a C6 means the major sixth chord C–E–G–A, i.e., a C major with an added 6th degree). The symbols can also be used with Roman numerals in analyzing functional harmony, a usage called figured Roman; see chord symbol.

See also

Notes

  1. Benward, Bruce; Marilyn Nadine, Saker (2003), Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I (7th ed.), N.Y.: Mcgraw-Hill, p. 77, ISBN   978-0-07-294262-0 .
  2. Schoenberg, Arnold (1983), Structural Functions of Harmony (7th ed.), London: Mcgraw-Hill, pp. 1–2.
  3. "Classical Era (1750-1820)", TheGreatHistoryofArts.Weebly.com. Accessed: 27 July 2017.
  4. 1 2 Vigil, R. "Figured Bass Notation" (PDF). Retrieved July 14, 2018.
  5. 1 2 Piston, Walter (1987). Harmony, Fifth Edition. New York: W. W. Norton. pp. 84–86. ISBN   978-0-393-95480-7.

Further reading

Related Research Articles

Classical period (music) Genre of Western music (c.1730-1820)

The Classical period was an era of classical music between roughly 1730 and 1820.

Transposing instrument Musical instrument for which notated pitch differs from sounding pitch

A transposing instrument is a musical instrument for which music notation is not written at concert pitch. For example, playing a written middle C on a transposing instrument produces a pitch other than middle C — that sounding pitch identifies the interval of transposition when describing the instrument. Playing a written C on clarinet or soprano saxophone produces a concert B, so these are referred to as B instruments. Providing transposed music for these instruments is a convention of musical notation. The instruments do not transpose the music, rather their music is written at a transposed pitch.

Sheet music is a handwritten or printed form of musical notation that uses musical symbols to indicate the pitches, rhythms, or chords of a song or instrumental musical piece. Like its analogs – printed books or pamphlets in English, Arabic, or other languages – the medium of sheet music typically is paper, although the access to musical notation since the 1980s has included the presentation of musical notation on computer screens and the development of scorewriter computer programs that can notate a song or piece electronically, and, in some cases, "play back" the notated music using a synthesizer or virtual instruments.

Chord (music)

A chord, in music, is any harmonic set of pitches/frequencies consisting of multiple notes that are heard as if sounding simultaneously. For many practical and theoretical purposes, arpeggios and broken chords, or sequences of chord tones, may also be considered as chords in the right musical context.

Theorbo

The theorbo is a plucked string instrument of the lute family, with an extended neck and a second pegbox. Like a lute, a theorbo has a curved-back sound box with a wooden top, typically with a sound hole, and a neck extending out from the soundbox. As with the lute, the player plucks or strums the strings with one hand while "fretting" the strings with the other hand; pressing the strings in different places on the neck produces different pitches (notes), thus enabling the performer to play chords, basslines and melodies.

This is a list of musical terms that are likely to be encountered in printed scores, music reviews, and program notes. Most of the terms are Italian, in accordance with the Italian origins of many European musical conventions. Sometimes, the special musical meanings of these phrases differ from the original or current Italian meanings. Most of the other terms are taken from French and German, indicated by "Fr." and "Ger.", respectively.

Bassline

A bassline is the term used in many styles of music, such as jazz, blues, funk, dub and electronic, traditional music, or classical music for the low-pitched instrumental part or line played by a rhythm section instrument such as the electric bass, double bass, cello, tuba or keyboard. In unaccompanied solo performance, basslines may simply be played in the lower register of any instrument such as guitar or piano while melody and/or further accompaniment is provided in the middle or upper register. In solo music for piano and pipe organ, these instruments have an excellent lower register that can be used to play a deep bassline. On organs, the bass line is typically played using the pedal keyboard and massive 16' and 32' bass pipes.

Accompaniment

Accompaniment is the musical part which provides the rhythmic and/or harmonic support for the melody or main themes of a song or instrumental piece. There are many different styles and types of accompaniment in different genres and styles of music. In homophonic music, the main accompaniment approach used in popular music, a clear vocal melody is supported by subordinate chords. In popular music and traditional music, the accompaniment parts typically provide the "beat" for the music and outline the chord progression of the song or instrumental piece.

Root (chord)

In music theory, the concept of root is the idea that a chord can be represented and named by one of its notes. It is linked to harmonic thinking—the idea that vertical aggregates of notes can form a single unit, a chord. It is in this sense that one speaks of a "C chord" or a "chord on C"—a chord built from C and of which the note C is the root. When a chord is referred to in Classical music or popular music without a reference to what type of chord it is, it is assumed a major triad, which for C contains the notes C, E and G. The root need not be the bass note, the lowest note of the chord: the concept of root is linked to that of the inversion of chords, which is derived from the notion of invertible counterpoint. In this concept, chords can be inverted while still retaining their root.

Basso continuo

Basso continuo parts, almost universal in the Baroque era (1600–1750), provided the harmonic structure of the music by supplying a bassline and a chord progression. The phrase is often shortened to continuo, and the instrumentalists playing the continuo part are called the continuo group.

Giulio Caccini Italian composer

Giulio Romolo Caccini was an Italian composer, teacher, singer, instrumentalist and writer of the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras. He was one of the founders of the genre of opera, and one of the most influential creators of the new Baroque style. He was also the father of the composer Francesca Caccini and the singer Settimia Caccini.

Placido Falconio, also called Falconi in some sources, was an Italian composer of the 16th century. His birth and death dates are unknown; his first publication dates from 1575, his last from 1588.

Musical improvisation

Musical improvisation is the creative activity of immediate musical composition, which combines performance with communication of emotions and instrumental technique as well as spontaneous response to other musicians. Sometimes musical ideas in improvisation are spontaneous, but may be based on chord changes in classical music and many other kinds of music. One definition is a "performance given extempore without planning or preparation". Another definition is to "play or sing (music) extemporaneously, by inventing variations on a melody or creating new melodies, rhythms and harmonies". Encyclopædia Britannica defines it as "the extemporaneous composition or free performance of a musical passage, usually in a manner conforming to certain stylistic norms but unfettered by the prescriptive features of a specific musical text. Improvisation is often done within a pre-existing harmonic framework or chord progression. Improvisation is a major part of some types of 20th-century music, such as blues, rock music, jazz, and jazz fusion, in which instrumental performers improvise solos, melody lines and accompaniment parts.

Unfigured bass, less commonly known as under-figured bass, is a kind of musical notation used during the Baroque music era in Western Classical music in which a basso continuo performer playing a chordal instrument improvises a chordal accompaniment from a notated bass line which lacks the guidance of figures indicating which harmonies should be played above the bass note. Figured bass parts have numbers or accidentals above the bass line which indicate which intervals above the bass should be played in the chord. However, not all basso continuo parts from the Baroque period were figured.

In music theory, the word inversion has distinct, but related, meanings when applied to intervals, chords, voices, and melodies. The concept of inversion also plays an important role in musical set theory.

Roman numeral analysis is a type of musical analysis in which chords are represented by Roman numerals. In some cases, Roman numerals denote scale degrees themselves. More commonly, however, they represent the chord whose root note is that scale degree. For instance, III denotes either the third scale degree or, more commonly, the chord built on it. Typically, uppercase Roman numerals are used to represent major chords, while lowercase Roman numerals are used to represent minor chords. However, some music theorists use upper-case Roman numerals for all chords, regardless of chord quality.

Baroque music Style of Western art music

Baroque music is a period or style of Western art music composed from approximately 1600 to 1750. This era followed the Renaissance music era, and was followed in turn by the Classical era, with the galant style marking the transition between Baroque and Classical eras. The Baroque period is divided into three major phases: early, middle, and late. Overlapping in time, they are conventionally dated from 1580 to 1650, from 1630 to 1700, and from 1680 to 1750. Baroque music forms a major portion of the "classical music" canon, and is now widely studied, performed, and listened to. The term "baroque" comes from the Portuguese word barroco, meaning "misshapen pearl". Key composers of the Baroque era include Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, Claudio Monteverdi, Domenico Scarlatti, Alessandro Scarlatti, Henry Purcell, Georg Philipp Telemann, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Arcangelo Corelli, François Couperin, Giuseppe Tartini, Heinrich Schütz, Dieterich Buxtehude, and others.

Musicians use various kinds of chord names and symbols in different contexts to represent musical chords. In most genres of popular music, including jazz, pop, and rock, a chord name and its corresponding symbol typically indicate one or more of the following:

  1. the root note,
  2. the chord quality,
  3. whether the chord is a triad, seventh chord, or an extended chord,
  4. any altered notes,
  5. any added tones, and
  6. the bass note if it is not the root.

Franck Thomas Arnold (1861-1940) was an Anglo-German musicologist and bibliophile. A self-taught scholar with a day job, he is best known for his The Art of Accompaniment from a Thorough-Bass (1931), described as the finest piece of musicography ever produced in England.

Realization (figured bass)

Realization is the art of creating music, typically an accompaniment, from a figured bass, whether by improvisation in real time, or as a detained exercise in writing. It is most commonly associated with Baroque music.