Even many musicians haven’t heard of figured bass. Also called
basso continuo, a simple explanation of the term is a short way to
note chords on a musical score. If you have never heard of it, it’s
most likely because the method isn’t used today. However, it could
be considered akin to, or a precursor of, a modern chord chart.
Figured bass originated in the Baroque era of the17th and 18th
century. Music has evolved over the centuries and still does today.
The development of figured bass came in response to one of these
early musical style evolutions. The Baroque music period came on the
heels of the Renaissance period. Music from the Renaissance was
generally characterized by its reliance upon intervals of thirds. Of
course, musical trends evolve over a period of time. For this
reason, it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact year when this trend
shifted. Usually a new musical era is well under way before anyone
realizes there has been a change. Modal characteristics of
Renaissance music eventually gave way to more tonal music. The
defining characteristic of tonal music is its use of fifths. This is
in contrast to the previous intervals of thirds. This led the way
for Baroque style music.
Composers and musicians in this period began using more elaborate
instrumentation during the Baroque period. New musical instruments
were being developed that contributed to the trend. Many of them had
wider range capabilities, allowing for more variety in musical
scores. New playing techniques were also developed, lending a
distinction to music of this period such as had not previously been
The more complex nature of Baroque music made a new form of musical
notation a necessity. This is how figured bass was born. Playing
music by reading figured bass required more than rudimentary musical
skills. With this method, the melody line and the bass line are
noted on a traditional musical scale (bass clef and treble clef).
The instrumentalist(s) would fill in the harmony lines based on the
bass note. The harmony part, or the part that was implied but not
written in the score, was known as the continuo.
To play figured bass, it is necessary to have a working
understanding of chords. An instrumentalist reading a score with
figured bass would see the melody notes and the bass notes. The
instrumentalist would assume that the continuo notes that would
accompany would be a standard fifth interval unless otherwise noted.
If another variation was desired, numbers would appear on the score
underneath the bass note indicating the appropriate interval.
Like many trends, the use of the figured bass method became
obsolete. Today, chords are often indicated by abbreviating their
names (i.e.,”C7″ for a C major/minor seventh chord). Similar to
figured bass, instrumentalists have some leeway for improvisation
with this type of musical annotation. This is in contrast to music
that has every note for each part annotated on a musical staff. Like
shorthand once was to writing, so was figured bass to music. And
like shorthand, changes in technology and trends have greatly
diminished the use of figured bass.