Figured bass is a notation system that was widely used in the Baroque era. It was used to indicate the harmonies that were intended to be played along with a written bassline.

What is Figured Bass?

Figured bass, also known as thoroughbass, is a musical notation system that was developed during the Baroque period. It served as a shorthand for indicating the harmonies that were intended to be played along with a written bassline.

The bassline would be notated on its own staff and figures would be added underneath each note to indicate which harmonies were to be played above it. The figures provided information about which chords, intervals, and inversions were to be used.

The Basics of Figured Bass

Figured bass notation consists of numbers and other symbols that are placed beneath or next to a note in the bassline. These figures indicate which chords should be played above the note.

The most common numbers used in figured bass are 6 and 4, which represent the intervals of a third and a sixth above the bass note respectively. For example, if you see a 6 beneath a note in the bassline, it means that a third above that note should be played. If you see a 4 beneath a note, it means that a sixth above should be played.

In addition to numbers, other symbols are used in figured bass notation such as + (which means “augmented”), – (which means “diminished”), and ^ (which means “raised”). These symbols are used to modify the intervals indicated by the numbers.

How to Read Figured Bass

Reading figured bass notation requires some knowledge of music theory and harmony. The figures tell you which intervals and chords are to be played, but you need to know how to interpret them.

For example, if you see a 6/4 figure beneath a note in the bassline, it means that the chord above that note should be in second inversion. You would need to know which notes make up that chord (based on the key signature) and how to play them in second inversion.

Why is Figured Bass Important?

Figured bass notation was an important development in music theory because it allowed composers and performers to quickly notate harmonies without having to write out every single note of a chord.

It was also useful because it allowed for improvisation and variation within a piece of music. By providing only the bassline and figures, composers could leave it up to performers to create their own harmonies within certain guidelines.


Figured bass notation is an important part of music history and is still studied by musicians today. It provides insight into how music was composed and performed during the Baroque era, and it continues to be used as a tool for teaching music theory and harmony.