TonalityGUIDE - basic tonal music theory and analysis for undergraduates
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Introduction to tonality More about the TonalityGUIDE analysis tool kit Clefs, note labels, intervals and transposition
chord identification understanding voice-leading style awareness

The ToolKIT, which is accessible from all pages of the site, outlines the three main analytical skills that aims to develop. It also links to a short introduction to the study of tonality as well as a reminder of some basics (note and interval labels, clefs and transpositions).

Chord Identification
overview triads Roman numerals figured bass

Figured bass was developed in the baroque period as a practical short hand for keyboard players, and music analysts often use it in addition to Roman numerals to help identify chords. Composers added figures below the bass line to help keyboard players harmonise it at sight. Working it out is pretty much mechanical: if you can count you can manage figured bass!

Each number simply represents a note that interval above the bass note.

Together these intervals constitute the chords that the baroque keyboardist would have played over the written bass line. The only complication is that, because it is a short hand system, not every note of every chord needed is given a figure. Instead a convention developed of writing the minimum number of figures needed to work out the harmony for each bass note, so a figured bass from the baroque era would look something like the example below, with some notes not figured at all.

The general principle is that the keyboardist (or analyst) presumes the following:

the bass note forms part of a root position triad (5, 3) unless the figures say otherwise

In the first example below, the chord is in root position - with a 3rd (B) and a 5th (D) above the bass. It would be figured 5, 3 but because this is the presumed chord there is no need to include any figuring.

In the second example there is a sixth (C) and a third (G) above the bass note. The full figuring would be 6, 3 but the 3 is presumed anyway so only the 6 is necessary

Two things about figured bass tend to confuse students:
  • the figures represent intervals above the bass NOT the root, so in the first inversion C major chord in the second example above, C is the root of the chord but it is figured 6 because it is a sixth above the bass in this inversion

  • the intervals do not necessarily appear above the bass in the order in which they are figured, a 3, for example can refer to any third above the bass even if there is one or more octaves in between.

The example below shows the most common figures that you might come across. Figures that are usually omitted are shown in brackets:

The diminished seventh at the end of the above example can also be shown as o7. There are a number of competing systems but TonalityGUIDE prefers accidentals placed after the figure as this is much clearer. Accidentals are only needed if they would appear in front of the note that is being figured. In other words if there is a sharp or flat in the key signature it is unnecessary in the figuring. As the example below shows, if there is an accidental on its own it applies to the note a third above the bass (in this case the B flat).

Another use for figures is to show suspensions. The figures in the example below clarify the two suspensions:

  • a suspended fourth above the bass (C) resolves to the third (B)
  • a suspended second (D) resolves to the octave above the bass (C).
As with other figures it is only necessary to include figures that would not be presumed in any case, so it is not necessary to figure the 5 in the first suspension and the 3 in the second.

The Tonality GUIDE tonal music analysis tool kit
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chord identification
understanding voice-leading
style awareness

© Copyright Thomas Pankhurst

TonalityGUIDE - Tonal Harmony and Voiceleading - Table of Contents