[Smt-talk] Figured Bass In The Modern World

Ildar Khannanov etudetableau at gmail.com
Sun Dec 14 15:32:04 PST 2014

Dear Carson and the List,

I agree that jazz utilizes a form of figred bass. My point is that what we
call figured bass today is quite different from what musicians used in the
early 18th century. Yes, jazz employs bass line with certain notation.
However, all these things happened after the theory of harmony and have
become thoroughly contaminated by functional hearing. You cannot tell a
jazzman that any triad can be connected to any triad if only voice leading
is OK. The sense of dominantness of great variety of chords in jazz is
outstanding. Sensitivity to the area of subdomiant rivals that of
late-Romantic European composers. Jazz is one of the most advanced form of
functional hearing, following in the footsteps of Riemann and Rameau.

As for voice leading outside functional concept, I keep hearing horror
stories about low quality of instruction in harmony at the conservatories
before Schenker ("because they used tonal functions") but I cannot match
these with the record of excellence in composition and performance of those
times and places.

Best wishes,

Ildar Khannanov
Peabody Institute, JHU
drkhannanov at gmail.com

2014-12-14 13:14 GMT-05:00 CARSON FARLEY <ccfarley at embarqmail.com>:
> 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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