• An Introductory Lesson On The Figured Bass Notation

    in Experienced players,Piano,Theory

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    In today’s lesson, we’ll be learning about the figured bass notation.

    The concept of the figured bass notation is not new because it dates back to a couple of centuries ago and so many classically trained musicians are aware of this concept.

    In addition to the importance of the figured bass notation, one of the reasons why we’re focusing on it in this lesson is to make it popular among musicians – especially those who play by the ear.

    The Preliminaries

    According to Jermaine Griggs, “a chord is a collection of three or more related notes (agreeable or not) that are heard together.”

    Pursuant to traditional guidelines, the notes of a given chord (aka – “chord tones”) must be related by an underlying scale and a class of harmony.

    Using the C natural major scale:

    …and harmony in third intervals (aka – “tertian harmony”) we can form a chord.

    ‘Check It Out…”

    Starting from any tone in the C natural major scale:

    …let’s say C (which is the first tone):

    …a chord can be formed by stacking notes together in third intervals. A third interval above C:

    …is E:

    …and another third interval above E:

    …is G:

    Altogether, we have C, E, and G:

    …and that’s the C major triad.

    The addition of other notes to the C major triad in third intervals, produces bigger chords known as seventh chords and extended chords.

    A third above the C major triad:

    …is B:

    Altogether, that’s the C major seventh chord:

    In the same vein, a third above the C major seventh chord:

    …is D:

    Altogether, that’s the C major ninth chord:

    …which is an extended chord.

    The minimum number of notes in a chord is three, and the interval between successive chord tones is basically third intervals. Chords that consist of three notes, with third intervals between successive chord tones are known as triads.

    The most popular triad is arguably the C major triad:

    Due to the scale relationship between the tones of a chord (aka – “chord tones”), chord tones are associated with the ordinal numbers like first, third, and fifth.

    In the C major triad:

    C:

    …is the first.

    E:

    …is the third.

    G:

    …is the fifth.

    These ordinal numbers are derived from the underlying scale which is the C natural major scale:

    … where C, E, G are the first, third, and fifth tones.

    The Concept Of The Figured Bass Notation

    The figured bass notation is a system of chord notation where figures are added to bass lines to indicate the intended chord that a musician should harmonize a bass note with.

    For example, given D:

    …as a bass note in the key of C natural major:

    …does not always imply a D minor triad:

    The G major triad:

    …can also be implied, and this is because the G major triad:

    …has D (which is the given bass note):

    …as its fifth tone.

    So the use of the figured bass notation is to precisely state the intended harmony of a given bass note.

    How The Figures Are Derived

    The figures used in the figured bass concept are derived from the intervals between successive chord tones in the intended harmony.

    “Let’s Use The D Bass Note As A Case Study…”

    The D note:

    …can be used as the bass note for the D minor triad:

    …and the G major triad:

    “Let’s Derive The Figured Bass Notation For The D Minor Triad…”

    In the D minor triad:

    …the interval from D to A:

    …is a fifth (written as 5), while the interval from D to F:

    …is a third (written as 3.)

    So, the figured bass notation that indicates that the D minor triad is the intended harmony when D is on the bass, is:

    5

    3

    A fifth and a third from the bass note realizes other chord tones in the intended harmony. A fifth from D (which is the bass note):

    …is A:

    …and a third from D:

    …is F:

    Altogether, D, F, and A:

    …produces the D minor triad (which is the intended harmony.)

    “Let’s Derive The Figured Bass Notation For The G Major Triad…”

    In the G major triad:

    …the interval from D to B:

    …is a sixth (written as 6), while the interval from D to G:

    …is a fourth (written as 4.)

    So, the figured bass notation that indicates that the G major triad is the intended harmony when D is on the bass, is:

    6

    4

    A sixth and a fourth from the bass note realizes other chord tones in the intended harmony. A sixth from D (which is the bass note):

    …is B:

    …and a fourth from D:

    …is G:

    Altogether, D, G, and B:

    …produces the G major triad (which is the intended harmony.)

    The Application Of The Figured Bass Notation

    In the classification of chords according to width, there are basically three classes of chords:

    • Triads
    • Seventh chords
    • Extended chords

    However, the concept of the figured bass notation can only be used in the notation of triads and seventh chords – which are within the compass of an octave.

    In a situation where a G dominant seventh chord is intended (in the key of C major), using F:

    …as a bass note would entail the figuration below:

    6

    4

    2

    A sixth from F:

    …is D:

    A fourth from F:

    …is B:

    A second from F:

    …is G:

    Using the figuration below

    6

    4

    2

    …we were able to derive the intended harmony from the bass note given.

    A Short Note On The Importance Of The Figured Bass Notation

    The figured bass notation is useful for a variety of reasons and we’ll be considering that in yet another lesson. For now, it’s used to differentiate two diatonic chords that share the same bass note.

    Using the figured bass, you can tell when the bass note E:

    …in the key of C major:

    …implies an E minor triad:

    …a C major triad:

    …or an A minor triad:

    E ‘5-3’ produces the E minor triad:

    …because B (a fifth above E):

    …and G (a third above E):

    …are derived.

    E ‘6-3’ produces the C major triad:

    …because C (a sixth above E):

    …and G (a third above E):

    …are derived.

    E ‘6-4’ produces the A minor triad:

    …because C (a sixth above E):

    …and A (a fourth above E):

    …are derived.

    Final Words

    I’m glad you’ve learned something about the figured bass notation in this introductory lesson.

    We’ll take our discussion to another level in subsequent lessons where we’ll outline and explore other areas the figured bass notation can be applied – especially in the area of chord formation.

    See you in the next lesson.

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as a music consultant and content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with thousands of musicians across the world.

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    { 1 comment… read it below or add one }

    1 Ogechukwu

    Great! Thanks for the lecture

    Reply

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