[Smt-talk] Figured Bass In The Modern World

Dr. Fred Bashour dufaydigital at att.net
Sun Dec 14 15:29:30 PST 2014

As a jazz pianist who grew up during the sixties, I learned jazz chord symbols before figured bass only by a few years, so I consider myself “bi-lingual.”  Since I no longer teach, I don’t know what others do, but Carson’s suggestion is not as radical as one might think.  In fact, my own “shorthand” –evolved over the past decades, is one which merges the two approaches.  In other words, I use jazz chord symbols, but instead of the “flat fifths,” etc. and other numbers in that field, that’s where I use the complete set of figured bass Arabic numerals.  Here’s a practical example, although I’m not with my score, so I can’t cite exactly how I notated it.


My daughter the violinist, now at Eastman, while still in high school, often called on me (at the last minute) to accompany her and, as a jazz keyboardist, I had more than just the notes on the printed page at my disposal.  I remember that she asked me to play the Sibelius Concerto, and I didn’t have enough time to learn the piano part as a “real” pianist would, but only about an hour, so I played though it, and made notes using the system just described above.  With those chord /figured bass symbols as shorthand in some of the places where it might be more difficult to read the simultaneities in real time (as actually only my second time through the score), I was able to fake it, and only my daughter noticed, and she didn’t complain because I’ve learned not to put augmented ninth chords where they don’t belong.


If anyone is interested, I could find some examples in my various scores, but I’m sure I’m not the only theorist/keyboardist who does something like this.  It seems so logical.




Fred Bashour

Dufay Digital Music

Leverett, MA




From: Smt-talk [mailto:smt-talk-bounces at lists.societymusictheory.org] On Behalf Of CARSON FARLEY
Sent: Sunday, December 14, 2014 1:14 PM
To: smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org
Subject: [Smt-talk] Figured Bass In The Modern World


I would argue that there is indeed a modern form of figured bass in existence and widely used by musicians today - it's called Jazz.  Jazz musicians voice chords, harmonize melodic content and improvise complex harmonic successions in an improvisitory manner when reading chord symbols.  Modern chord symbols are capable of conveying much of the same information as in figured bass: inversions, interval content, suspensions, pedal points, etc.  I have known Baroque keyboardists that use figured bass in their work, but they tend to be specialists in that area of music.  But how many professional musicians are actually called upon to use figured bass in the modern world?  I believe that a more modern language is not only more accessible, but makes more sense for the modern musician unless of course one wishes to specialize in historical academic forms relative to their work and interests.  Just because figured bass existed at a certain time in musical history does not mean that it is still relevant - there are important things to be learned from it in passing for the musician in general - namely awareness of inversions in any vertical harmonic context.  This kind of information is vital for composers and anyone who improvises such as jazz musicians.  As a composer, cellist, and music theory student I was drilled in figured bass exercises.  But I have to admit I gleaned what was relevant from it for my own work and understanding and have never really used it nor care to.  I prefer a more modern language like the chord symbols used in Jazz.   


Carson Farley

University of Washington Alumnus

Composer, cellist, theorist

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