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Section 16.1 Historical Context

In the Baroque era in music (roughly 1600–1750 C.E.), a shorthand was developed for writing chords. (Lead-sheet symbols are the modern shorthand for representing chords). Figured bass (also known as thoroughbass) consists of a bass line notated on a staff accompanied by numbers representing intervals to be played above the bass note within the key signature. (These figured-bass numbers are traditionally notated below the bass line.)
Handel’s handwritten manuscript with figured bass numbers
Figure 16.1.1. George Frideric Handel’s handwritten manuscript of Recorder Sonata in A minor, HWV 362, I. Larghetto
An edition with figured bass numbers but without the chords realized
Figure 16.1.2. George Frideric Handel, Recorder Sonata in A minor, HWV 362, I. Larghetto, without figured bass realization
An edition where the chords have been realized
Figure 16.1.3. George Frideric Handel, Recorder Sonata in A minor, HWV 362, I. Larghetto, with figured bass realization
Like lead-sheet symbols, figured bass allowed a keyboardist or guitarist freedom in choosing chord voicings. While some early music specialists perform from scores with the original notation, editions of Baroque compositions by composers like J.S. Bach and Handel that were originally notated with figured bass have been “realized” or written out in modern editions.
In the present day, figured bass is taught in music theory courses primarily as a shorthand for chord inversion symbols (although many music programs also endeavor to teach students to perform at the piano music written with figured bass notation).