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In figured bass usually a first inversion chord is just labelled as 6. However, in minor the V in first inversion has a raised note. In my book the V in first inversion is still notated as 6 without any accidentals. Is this correct? what happens if I want to write the figured bass for v in first inversion?

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  • The altered note is the third of the chord, and in first inversion you can “see” it in the bass, so it doesn’t need anything special in the figures. Second inversion and root position might. Sep 9, 2021 at 10:31
  • (Also, note there’s a difference between minor “v” (in the key of A minor, an E minor chord) and lowered “Vb” (an E flat major chord) Sep 9, 2021 at 10:52
  • @AndyBonner You've got it. Consider writing that up as an answer.
    – Aaron
    Sep 9, 2021 at 10:58

2 Answers 2

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The figures show intervals relative to the given bass note. Unaltered figures generally mean the diatonic pitch at that interval. Therefore, for example, in a piece in A minor, whether the bass is G or G♯, the E is indicated with a 6.

It is not particularly fruitful to try to understand figured bass in the context of inversions. Figured bass was developed over a century before the theory of triadic inversions, which. furthermore, was not universally accepted until some time later. Most people writing figured bass would have considered that a 6 chord over G or G♯ was distinct from an E minor or E major chord.

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    Underlying point: figured bass evolved as a tool for performance, not a tool for theoretical analysis. Sep 9, 2021 at 16:21
  • @AndyBonner absolutely. Of course, treatises do discuss sixth chords, typically as a separate class from those we would today call first-inversion triads, but that arose from the performance shorthand rather than the other way around.
    – phoog
    Sep 9, 2021 at 17:31
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Since figured bass shows the intervals above the bass, it only shows chromatic alterations for intervals above the bass. As such, if the only chromatic pitch is itself the note in the bass, there's no need for any chromatic alterations in the figures, since the figures apply to notes above the bass, not the bass itself. The accidental in front of that bass pitch is what tells you what to do in the bass.

Let's take C minor for an example; the V chord is G–B♮–D. In first inversion, the chordal third (B♮) is in the bass, and the G and the D are above it. Note that the only altered pitch is the one that's in the bass; since the G and D are not chromatically altered, there are no alterations to show for the intervals above the bass.

The same is true for the v chord; here the B♭ is in the bass, so there's nothing to specify anything in the figures.

But it goes a bit deeper: if the V is in root position, technically you would show the chromatic alteration of the B♮ with a ♮3 in the figures (or just a lone ♮, which always applies to the third above the bass). There are two schools of thought here:

  1. Always show the chromatic alterations no matter what, so you'd do that here.
  2. Or, since the Roman numeral is uppercase, this tells us the chord is already major. Thus the uppercase Roman numeral implies that the third must be raised, so showing the chromatic alteration in the figures is redundant. (Note that this only applies to traditions that specify uppercase vs. lowercase Roman numerals.)

Similarly, let's imagine we want a vii° chord in first inversion. In C minor, that's B♮–D–F with a D in the bass. For this, we could show the raised sixth B♮ above the bass D with a ♯6 (or the 6 with a slash through it, which I can't really do here). But again, since the Roman numeral specifies it's a diminished chord, the B♮ is implied.

And two final points:

  1. There's a slight misprint in your first sentence: first-inversion chords have 6 (or 6/3) as the figured bass, but second-inversion chords have 6/4.
  2. If by "Vb" someone means "the V chord built on a lowered root," they should actually write "♭V." If the root itself is chromatically altered, you put that alteration before the Roman numeral. Hence an E♭-major triad in C major is ♭III, etc.
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  • This is totally a red herring and maybe I should ask my own question, but... what about musica ficta? Might we ever find a root-position cadential V in a minor key that's understood to have the raised third without bothering to indicate the sharp in the figured bass? Or is the overlap between the time periods of musica ficta and figured bass so small that that would be anachronism? Sep 9, 2021 at 12:43
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    @AndyBonner to your last question, yes.
    – phoog
    Sep 9, 2021 at 13:49
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    Vb is V in first inversion, That is the ABRSM way of teaching. I dont like it and find it annoying and much prefer V6. It worries me that this is not common theory knowledge... Did you not learn inversions with the letters a,b and c to label chord inversions?
    – user35708
    Sep 9, 2021 at 15:19
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    @armani I'm familiar with it, but it's not as common in the US. My discussion about "Vb" was really in response to a comment on the original question.
    – Richard
    Sep 9, 2021 at 15:28
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    @AndyBonner In seventeenth century music, yes, you find unfigured or lightly figured bass lines that do not indicate raised thirds at cadences. Composers notated only what was exceptional, what a performer would not automatically do or could not infer from the context. But that's not why the chord you're discussing would just be "6". That's because as others have said the figures only indicate diatonic intervals (within the key signature) above the bass. Sep 9, 2021 at 19:32

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