figured bass, in music, a system of shorthand notation in which figures are written below the notes of the bass part to indicate the chords to be played. Called also thorough bass and basso continuo, it arose in the early 17th cent. in Italy as a means of notating an accompaniment. It soon became so widespread that the baroque era is sometimes called the age of basso continuo. The harpsichord's part in sonatas was indicated by a figured bass, and the harpsichord and the organ are usually played from a figured bass in the vocal works of Bach and Handel. The realization of the basso continuo involves considerable improvisation, varying in style according to composer and period. Both Bach and Mozart wrote out rules for playing the figured bass. After the time of Bach, with the development of the symphony, the figured bass disappeared except for limited use in opera and as a device for teaching harmony.
See F. T. Arnold, The Art of Accompaniment from a Thorough-Bass (1931, repr. 1965); H. Keller, Thoroughbass Method (tr. by C. Parrish, 1965).
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