In the sheet music for BWV1, "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" the last instrument is labeled as "continuo". What does that mean?


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    You could have googled this en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basso_continuo. If you've read that and still don't understand something then this is the place to ask.
    – PiedPiper
    Oct 24, 2021 at 13:35
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    @PiedPiper If you research whether Stack Exchange wants us to close questions for lack of research, you’ll find the answer is mostly “no”. You yourself asked a question about the difference between bass trumpet and valve trombone that could have been answered by reading two Wikipedia pages. Should your question also be closed? Oct 24, 2021 at 14:54
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    @PiedPiper See also music.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/2089/… Oct 24, 2021 at 15:03
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    @ToddWilcox The Wikipedia pages (and other references) for the two instruments didn't (and still don't) go into the details of the differences. The accepted answer did.
    – PiedPiper
    Oct 24, 2021 at 15:37
  • What happened to my comment?
    – Tim
    Oct 24, 2021 at 17:22

2 Answers 2


'Continuo' is thorough bass or more commonly figured bass, or basso continuo.

At the start of the 17th C, unaccompanied choral music was declining, and vox accompanied by plain chords taking over. This style lasted for a good two hundred years.

Often, a single line of bass notes (as in the example) along with certain numbers were the clues that a harpsichordist or organist used to make his own accompaniment. It provided enough information as to the harmony involved, and the player could and would make this his basis.

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    Although keyboard instruments are the most common, "continuo" can include many other instruments. The choice of them is not set in stone or dictated by the score, although it might be by convention; a piece of sacred music by Bach almost certainly uses organ. It might add a theorbo (bass lute), though, for color. A secular piece might be more likely to use harpsichord. If there is a plucked-string player and the piece takes a Spanish twist, they might switch to baroque guitar. The term also blurs the boundaries with "bass line"; during a recit, the cello is considered a "continuo player." Oct 24, 2021 at 13:51
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    Originally, around the beginning of the 17th century, the basso continuo part arose in a capella style, where it doubled the choral bass verbatim, but where the bass wasn't singing it would double whatever the lowest part was at the time, be it tenor, alto, or even soprano. These parts were written for organists: it is not likely that anyone expected the cellist to double a soprano fugue entrance on F5, for example. "Thorough" was basically the same word as "through" in those days, so "thorough bass" is a straight translation of "basso continuo."
    – phoog
    Oct 24, 2021 at 21:27
  • The comments of AndyBonner and phoog seem to be answers on their own.
    – guidot
    Dec 23, 2021 at 21:40

The crucial point is, that this needs not to be single instrument but more a rôle to be filled. Depending on the number of other instruments, the balance may be achieved by a single chamber organ, harpsichord, viol de bass, lute, theorbo, bassoon, violoncello or a group of those, possible changing in the different movements. Since chords may be at least helpful if not required, a single cello or bassoon is most likely to be supplemeted by another instrument.

It may also be interesting to know, that sometimes the musicians receive additional money, since in baroque music they have to play all the time, while the melody instruments frequently alternate.

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