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    Figured bass in the theory classroom (continued from SMT-Talk)

    edited December 2014 in Pedagogy

    [I've reposted my original question below followed by some comments based on the SMT-Talk discussion]

    "The past several years I have attempted to make classroom activities and assignments as practical as possible for future performers, educators, and ensemble directors. As a result, I find myself spending less and less time on realizing a figured bass. I still teach its history and its usefulness in modeling voice leading, but I have trouble justifying for myself the skill of turning figured-bass notation into voice leading. I realize this is still a performance practice in very specific performance situations, but as far as I'm aware, not beyond that.

    For those who feel that realizing a figured bass is an important part of a musical education, I would welcome any insight you have to offer since I feel uneasy about marginalizing such a widely-used portion of the curriculum. For those that spend little time on realizing a figured bass, I would welcome any thoughts you have as well."



    After seeing the direction many of the comments have gone, I'd like to state some premises that may have not been as explicit as I had intended:

    1. I teach figured bass and do not ever plan on changing that. This includes its historical context as a performance practice and a theoretical concept. My students learn how to use figured bass notation as a tool to model voice leading with a greater specificity than Roman numerals or lead-sheet symbols allow (Though I agree with many posters that as a jazz pianist, I can anticipate voice leading in a jazz ensemble based purely on a chord chart).

    2. I concede that *if* a theory class has a keyboard component, realizing a figured bass is an excellent way to teach students how to extemporize the same types of excercises they traditionally do on paper. However, my question refers to a very specific activity in which an instructor gives students a figured bass at their seats and they "translate" that into particular harmonies and four-part voice leading. 

    3. In a four-semester theory sequence, one must prioritize. Choosing to spend more time on in-class presentation, student teaching, in-class performance of voice-leading assignments, or performance implications of analysis than on figured bass is not an indictment of figured bass. Likewise, chosing to spend increased time working out figured-bass excersises is not an indictment of those activities. 

    I look forward to reading more of your comments!


    Brian Hoffman (Is a signature redundant on SMT Discuss?)

    Butler University







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    • 5 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • Many thanks to Brian Hoffman for raising these issues! I'm not going to try to develop my own thoughts here since I am approaching these issues from an entirely different, abstract "ahistorical" standpoint in my next blog entry in Essays & Endnotes.

      The intersecction I see is that the question Brian has raised boils down to one of relevance: making "classroom activities and assignments as practical as possible for future performers, educators, and ensemble directors." To this list I would also add the theorist-teacher's elephant in the room (I was tempted to write "bête noire"): the future composer.

      FB realization and especially the improvisation & partimenti issues raised during the discussion on smt-list before it moved here reminded me of something I read by Charles Rosen in a rather obscure lecture published as "The Musical Languages of Elliott Carter":

      On the subject  of the real, as opposed to the imaginary difficulties of contemporary music, I recall speaking to Carter some years ago about the difficulty of composing for the piano after about 1920. I remarked on how much easier it must have been to be a composer in the eighteenth and ninetenth centuries, for then one had all kinds of scales, arpeggios, and commonly accepted devices with which to write. I was thinking of those long cadential passages that appear even in the finest pieces by Mozart, passages which one could almost transfer unaltered from one piece to another. (When practicing one of the B-flat concertos – K.450 – I have actually found myself absentmindedly playing another one of them – K.595.) Carter replied that composition was not only more difficult now, but that every time one wrote a piece it seemed as if one had to reinvent a language in which to write it.

      In addition, I was recently made aware of a 2010 article by David Yearsley: "The Dark Side of Musical Englightenment" which gains much of its inspiration from Robert Gjerdingen's Music in the Galant Style. Perhaps Messrs. Yearsley and Gjerdingen can be coaxed into adding to this conversation about the relationship of music-making between two ages spaced three-plus centuries apart.

      And to all a Happy Beethoven's Birthday!

    • Dear Brian,

      I would join you in being reasonabe and considerate: to say that f.b. is useless means to offend a large number of teachers of theory who relie upon this method today. On the other hand, as I already mentioned, in practice, the f.b. realization (writing out the chords implied by the given bass line with figures) does more harm than good. Students simply calculate the distances from the bass note (I saw some of them using their digits!). They add to this mechanical excercise some dogmatic knowledge of stereotypical connections of tones from one chord to another without any attempt to hear the necessity of these connections. Simply, if the teacher told to lead the 7th down, they do it. 

      The argument that Bach did that kind of work is not valid. It is known that Bach harmonized 371 melodies--he did not have the bass lines with figures!

      So, I do not understand your mentioning that f.b. notation is more flexible and/or musical than Roman Numerals. I have many more questions to our status quo in theory pedagogy but the one about f.b. is, perhaps, the most urgent. Thank you for bringing it up on the List.




      Ildar Khannanov

      Peabody Institute


    • Ildar, 

      Forgive me, but I cannot find the words "flexible" or "musical" anywhere in my post above, let alone in reference to figured bass or Roman numerals. I did say that figured bass describes voice leading with greater specificity than Roman numerals. I did this largely to acknowledge some of the benefits of learning figured bass already mentioned by our colleagues.

      I sincerely do not intend my question as an attack or criticism of any concept or pedagogy. It is merely an opportunity for me to learn what others are practicing in their classrooms. 

      On a lighter note, I wish I had such an impact on my students that when I tell them to lead the 7th down, they simply do it mechanically. I have tried telling them, emailing them, Tweeting them, and shameless begging. 

      Brian Hoffman

      Butler University


    • Here are some benefits that I feel may accrue from teaching figured bass:

      1. As some others have already suggested, there are certain sonorities--such as those involving passing tones, suspensions, and the like--that can more easily be shown with figured bass than with Roman numerals. This is not to deny that one can designate these sonorities without figured bass--but then that would still take class time, perhaps more class time that it would take to teach figured bass symbols. It is certainly not the case that one must learn figured bass in order to avoid writing every chord as block sonority--but arguably knowing figured bass might help promote textural fluidity, such as Olli noted.

      2. There are certain progressions--such as those that involve modulations or sequences--which are harder to label with Roman numerals than with figured bass, or in which the chord functions might be open to debate. Using figured bass for such passages--and allowing students to analyze the functions themselves--can be beneficial as well.

      The cost-benefit analysis in another matter: to say that something may be helpful to learn is different from saying that it is vital to learn, and sometimes one must make decisions regarding whether to cut certain subjects in order to carve some more time for others. It seems to me that if teaching four-part harmony anyway, adding figured bass to the mix doesn't seem to take up that much class time. 

      When I studied at Mannes, we all had to play figured basses of Bach-Schemelli chorales at the keyboard, transpose Schubert song accompaniments at sight, play Bach chorales in 4 clefs (and transpose them at sight, too), and a host of other things. There were other things that we did not learn, and perhaps should have. But though I often rue things that I have not learned, I have never regretted acquiring those skills that I did.

      Poundie Burstein


      Poundie Burstein


    • I still maintain that modern chord charting can convey quite a bit of information that is found in figured bass and has the advantage of visually being above the staff as opposed to below it.  So many things can be conveyed with it such as any bass note choice/inversions for any harmonic configuration, for example: polytonality, C/E, F7/G, Csus, Cdim7, C7b5, C5(no 3rd), C13#11, CM7sus, Cm/Gm, etc.  As was mentioned in another thread voice leading is to a certain extent expected to be a part of the musician's extended performance knowledge.  Voicing on the other hand, perhaps something understood very well by jazz pianists and guitarists is also accessed and utilized according to aquired knowledge of voice leading and voicing principles.  As a classical musicians we learn very specifc voice leading principles such as leading tone resolution, tritone resolution, doubling note priorities in 4 voice part writing, resolutions of suspensions and non harmonic tones, avoidence of parallel 5ths and octaves, etc.  But in contemporary styles such as jazz or pop, the way harmonic content is "voiced" between chords is something very refined and particular as well.  For example as a gutarist I might choose to voice a Dm chord following a C major chord by moving the collection of tones in the Dm chord below (in register) the C major tone collection.  This is in some ways similar to the voice leading principle in classical voice leading when a root position Dm chord follows a root position C chord, the bass move up and the three upper voices all more downward to avoid parallel movements and improper voice leading.  As a cellist or composer I'm not called upon to use figured bass (although I was trained in it), but as a gutarist and bassist I have to read and interpret chord symbol nomenclature all the time for jazz or improvising situations.  I would add that I beleive it is possible to teach voice leading principles without necessarily associating it with figured bass, but I understand the important historical context.  We still use do re mi fa so la ti do . . . and we still use other techniques that facilitate understanding of important musical forms.  

      Here's a quote from "A History Of Musical Style" by Richard L. Crocker on figured bass, or Basso continuo: 

      "Soon after Philip Emanuel's time the figured bass was abandoned, in part, at least, because composers, now wishing to exercise even more refinement in the spacing of chords and the handling of inner parts, were no longer willing to entrust them to the discretion of the continue player."   Pg. 356.  

      So obviously there was the necessity and desire for classical composers after 1750 to specify exactly all voice leading of the harmonic structure in a composition and it makes sense.  I don't see any figured bass in the scores of Bach's  Brandenberg Concertos I have (Lea Pocket Scores Vol. 1). Is the reason because the keyboard part is too specific to the composition?