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Thread: My teacher asked us a question about figured bass...

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    Default My teacher asked us a question about figured bass...

    In my class we are learning about figured bass.

    My teach asked us why figured bass is not used in contemporary composition. Not really sure, except maybe people are too dumb to understand it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ace the Burn Victim II View Post
    In my class we are learning about figured bass.

    My teach asked us why figured bass is not used in contemporary composition. Not really sure, except maybe people are too dumb to understand it.
    Didn't he know the answer himself then?

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    Perhaps it's because figured bass notation isn't specific enough for contemporary composers. From the classical period onwards, most composers prefer to notate the exact voicing of each chord. They want to show precisely what octave to use for each chord tone, and which notes are doubled or omitted.

    Figured bass doesn't allow for that kind of specificity. It's a much less precise type of notation. That might be one reason why figured bass fell out of favor at the end of the Baroque period.
    Last edited by Bettina; Oct-25-2016 at 06:23.

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    Figured bass is an accompaniment technique. It is not key specific like the Roman numerals for chords plus subscripts for inversions. It demands a certain mental dexterity on the part of the performer but after a time you can recognise certain progressions. It allows you to accompany anything from a singer - light chords not too much fancy work - to a full orchestra - full chords, passing notes and fancy tricks are possible because you sink into the background.

    The closest modern equivalent is the lead sheet where we have simply chord names with no inversions. The accompanist can choose the inversions to make a smooth progression.

    Figured bass died out as a composition technique probably because we have moved to standard orchestras. If you look at a baroque piece you will have the main theme on strings and other instruments. You will have a continuo accompaniment - figured bass - on whatever resources you have - theorbo, harpsichord, lute, double bass whatever. The figures, like a lead sheet, do for all. The players know how to cope. As the orchestra developed and more and better instrumentalists were used, composers realised what they could do with such resources by detailed scoring rather than leaving the players to improvise. You can see something of this in the work of Stamitz in the Mannheim school.
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    in fact figured bass isn´t forgotten at all if we concentrate on a technical aspect of it, not on a term as such.

    the first thing that comes to mind is jazz music , in all classic jazz themes figured bass was used and it is supposed to be improvised.

    if we think of pure classical music as we understand it then it´s a different matter, then for sure figured bass was long ago abandoned.
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    figured bass works very well in music based on counterpoint. The reason is that the intervals above the bass are absolute, the actual chord doesn't enter into it. the result of realizing the figures results in the chord, but that is beside the point.

    Since Rameau's treatise in 1722, we have moved steadily away from the rules of counterpoint and toward the idea of functional harmony.

    Today, I see lots of "lead sheets" with chord symbols, and the harmony is improvised from the chord symbols rather than the figures. The difference is that the actual bass note is not given when you are using chord symbols.

    also, not to put too fine a point on it, but I learned to play jazz as a kid. I learned from old guys in my town that were from the bebop era. Jazz players use chord symbols. I never saw figured bass until I graduated high school and went on to music school, so in jazz figured bass is not used. Harmony is improvised, for sure, but it is taken from chord symbols which most jazz players regard as "suggestions"
    Last edited by Nate Miller; Oct-25-2016 at 14:29.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Nate Miller View Post
    figured bass works very well in music based on counterpoint. The reason is that the intervals above the bass are absolute, the actual chord doesn't enter into it. the result of realizing the figures results in the chord, but that is beside the point.

    Since Rameau's treatise in 1722, we have moved steadily away from the rules of counterpoint and toward the idea of functional harmony.

    Today, I see lots of "lead sheets" with chord symbols, and the harmony is improvised from the chord symbols rather than the figures. The difference is that the actual bass note is not given when you are using chord symbols.

    also, not to put too fine a point on it, but I learned to play jazz as a kid. I learned from old guys in my town that were from the bebop era. Jazz players use chord symbols. I never saw figured bass until I graduated high school and went on to music school, so in jazz figured bass is not used. Harmony is improvised, for sure, but it is taken from chord symbols which most jazz players regard as "suggestions"
    that thing that in jazz chord symbols are used is quite clear to me. I didn´t want to point to it literally. I wanted to point to an idea itself, not as a literal usage of a given bass note or a chord. the idea is to point at something either chord or a note etc regardless of it being called a "figured bass" or anything else.
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    Quote Originally Posted by helenora View Post
    that thing that in jazz chord symbols are used is quite clear to me. I didn´t want to point to it literally. I wanted to point to an idea itself, not as a literal usage of a given bass note or a chord. the idea is to point at something either chord or a note etc regardless of it being called a "figured bass" or anything else.
    absolutely. That's why I didn't want to hit that too hard. but for the benefit of people who don't play any jazz, I wanted to be clear that jazz uses chord symbols and not figures

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    I play folk which also uses chords for accompaniment. I've just been up at a keyboard school where the teacher had also played second accordion in a (Scottish country) dance band. He noted that that particular band used fully written vamp parts rather than just the chord names so that the band leader could get the sound he wanted.
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    Thanks for the responses everybody. They were very helpful. I think I understand it all now.

    Pugg, my teacher knew the answer, she was just trying to put our brains into motion.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Taggart View Post
    Figured bass is an accompaniment technique. It is not key specific like the Roman numerals for chords plus subscripts for inversions. It demands a certain mental dexterity on the part of the performer but after a time you can recognise certain progressions. It allows you to accompany anything from a singer - light chords not too much fancy work - to a full orchestra - full chords, passing notes and fancy tricks are possible because you sink into the background.

    The closest modern equivalent is the lead sheet where we have simply chord names with no inversions. The accompanist can choose the inversions to make a smooth progression.

    Figured bass died out as a composition technique probably because we have moved to standard orchestras. If you look at a baroque piece you will have the main theme on strings and other instruments. You will have a continuo accompaniment - figured bass - on whatever resources you have - theorbo, harpsichord, lute, double bass whatever. The figures, like a lead sheet, do for all. The players know how to cope. As the orchestra developed and more and better instrumentalists were used, composers realised what they could do with such resources by detailed scoring rather than leaving the players to improvise. You can see something of this in the work of Stamitz in the Mannheim school.
    Did figured bass come before there was harmony the way we think of it now, with chord names and functions? Is that why it's so archaic?

    Why are students even required to learn it? So they can play in HIP ensembles? Or to torture them?
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Oct-26-2016 at 20:03.

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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    Did figured bass come before there was harmony the way we think of it now, with chord names and functions? Is that why it's so archaic?

    Why are students even required to learn it? So they can play in HIP ensembles? Or to torture them?
    yes, it did predate any thought of functional harmony

    when I went to music school you learned it because that's what you had to do. You didn't have to be able to actually play it, but you had to do exercises where you wrote the inner voices according to the figures.

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    Yes, it's definitely HIP. I was at a summer school in Scarborough this year where we had to play the figured bass to some Geminiani - great fun. Anybody learning harpsichord in the UK. for formal music exams will be expected to play figured bass. It's also part of the practical music exams where you play by ear and for keyboards play accompaniment by ear or from figured bass.

    Part of the technique is involved in playing from a ground whether a standard one such as a bergamask, ruggiero or passamezzo or a simple bass line. It is an improvisation technique as much as a harmony technique in the same family as the 12 bar blues which is also a ground.
    Music begins where words leave off. Music expresses the inexpressible.

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    Figured bass has no place in modern music. Theoretical or otherwise. It serves no practical function and should be reserved for historians and people who make poor life choices.

    *EDIT: spelling
    Last edited by PoorSadDrunk; Nov-08-2016 at 02:57.

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    well, if you are interested in figured bass, a person can still find opportunities to play continuo. My piano playing friend has a trio with a violin and cello and he is playing continuo with the cellist at an upcoming recital

    so if you play piano or guitar, knowing continuo playing can get you some opportunities you wouldn't have otherwise

    if you play harpsichord, you should know continuo playing.

    so it still comes up, even in this day and age. As with everything else in music, the more you know and the more you can do, the more opportunities you will have to perform

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