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Introduction to thoroughbass
A thoroughbass (It. Basso continuo, Ger. Generalba , also called a
igured bass) is a harmonic shorthand of a musical passage or work.
It is composed of a bass line, and chord symbolscalled igures. It
is called a thorough bass or continuous bass line because it
includes the lowest sounding note at any given moment, regardless
of the instrument or voice sounding the note. It usually corresponds to
a single instrument or vocal part, but not always.

J.S. Bach, Flute Sonata in C Major, ii., BWV 1033. The upper part is
played by the lute, the lower part is the basso continuo line, played by
a keyboardist who uses the numbers below the sta f ( igures) to guide the

chords played above this bass line.


The historical origin of the thoroughbass part was in church
settings where a piece for 68 singers was to be performed by one
or two voices with a keyboard instrument. The keyboardist, rather
than play the 47 remaining parts, would transcribe the lowest note
and shorthand figures to indicate the (simple) intervals present
above that lowest voice. This would allow the keyboardist to play
one or two of the more important lines, and fill the rest of the
texture with blocked or arpeggiated chords. (Think seventeenthcentury lead sheet.) A good keyboardist, who knew their harmony
and voice-leading, could simply follow the bass line without figures
(an un igured bass) and listen to the melody, improvising the rest.
Less experienced keyboardists, however, could manage otherwise
complicated pieces by reading a bass line and memorizing a small
number of figures and basic voice-leading rules. (You can read a
more detailed explanation of its history here.)
Coming after species counterpoint in our studies, basso continuo
exercises provide a new, more complicated environment in which
to practice mediating the demands of smoothness, independence of
lines, tonal fusion (now considering triads and seventh chords),
variety, and motion. New considerations of performability are
introduced, and the presence of dissonances within the core
harmonies themselves will call for new approaches to harmonic
dissonance in this style.
We will use thoroughbass lines for a number of purposes in this
book:

harmonic reductions of pieces and passages with dense


textures or complicated voice-leading
shorthand representations of stock harmonic patterns
the harmonic basis for model composition exercises (akin
to the cantus irmus of species counterpoint)
Thoroughbass is a simple, and foundational, concept. Master it
early, and subsequent activities will be much easier.
Note on figure placement: Thoroughbass figures can appear above
or below the bass line. Both are common, but in this book, we
generally place them above the bass line. This connects them to our
habits of interval analysis during species counterpoint, keeps
figures separate from other harmonic symbols we will place below
the bass line, and make typesetting in notation software easier
when both figures and other symbols are in play simultaneously.

Figures
In general, a thoroughbass figure indicates the simple intervals above
the bass for all pitch classes present in the chord.
The largest number typically found in thoroughbass figures is 7. In
general, compound intervals (an octave or larger) are reduced to their
simple interval equivalent. A tenth becomes a third, a thirteenth
becomes a sixth, etc.
The most common chords in tonal music are triads and seventh

chords. The following figures apply to these chords:

5/3: use a fifth and a third above the bass (one note of the
chord will be doubled)
6/3: use a sixth and a third above the bass (one note of the
chord will be doubled)
6/4: use a sixth and a fourth above the bass (one note of
the chord will be doubled)
7/5/3: use a seventh, a fifth, and a third above the bass
6/5/3: use a sixth, a fifth, and a third above the bass
6/4/3: use a sixth, a fourth, and a third above the bass
6/4/2: a use a sixth, a fourth, and a second above the bass
These figures are so common, that most of them have shortcuts:

no figure = 5/3
6 = 6/3
6/4 is never abbreviated
7 = 7/5/3
6/5 = 6/5/3
4/3 = 6/4/3
4/2 (or just 2) = 6/4/2
Other shortcuts generally follow two simple rules:
Assume a fifth is present above the bass unless there is a
6 in the figure.
Assume a third is present above the bass unless there is a
4 or a 2 in the figure.

Unfamiliar figures and chords


Only seven figures are given above. If you see a figure you do not
recognize, simply follow the intervals (using the two shortcut
rules). Likewise, if analyzing a chord that is not a triad or seventh
chord, simply label the simple intervals you see/hear above the
bass, from top to bottom in descending order: 7/6/3 or 5/4, for
example. In time, you will become familiar with a number of other
harmonic possibilities, and their corresponding figures.

Chords of the fifth and chords of the


sixth

sixth
All chords can be categorized as either a chord of the ifth or a chord
of the sixth. This distinction will be important for our study of
voice-leading.
A chord of the ifth contains a fifth above the bass, but no sixth
above the bass.
A chord of the sixth contains a sixth above the bass.

Chromatic alteration
If a note is chromatically altered (different than the key signature),
the figure must be altered as well. Since bass notes are already
present in the bass, a chromatic alteration in the bass will not make
it into the figure. However, any other alteration in the upper voices
(such as a raised leading tone in minor) must be reflected in the
figure. To do so, simply put a sharp, flat, or natural to the left of the
appropriate number.
Of course, there are some shortcuts. For example, draw a line (a
slash) through a number to denote that it is raised by half-step
(can substitute both for sharp or for natural). Also, when altering
the third above the bass, simply use the sharp, flat, or natural and
leave out the 3.

In general, if there is a shortcut available, use it. The shortcuts are


more standard than the corresponding full notation.
Keep in mind that some chords have abbreviated figures. For
example, it is common for the leading tone to be the third above
the bass in a 5/3 chord. In such a situation, a bass note that
otherwise would have no figure needs a sharp or a natural for its
thoroughbass figure.
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