8

The standard figured bass is usually just a 7 for a 7th chord in root position, right? If this is correct, the 5th and 3rd are assumed. But what about if the 7th chord should omit the 5th and double the root?

3
  • 2
    Since the 5th is always there, heard as a harmonic of the root, it's never really going to happen.
    – Tim
    Nov 15 '21 at 11:09
  • 2
    Further to @Tim's comment, why would you want to? (This is partly a rhetorical question, but partly not: can you give an example of a place where you'd want to do this to help us understand why you're asking the question?)
    – phoog
    Nov 16 '21 at 8:46
  • Phoog, in figured bass the numbers are supposed to tell you what notes to play. So if I want to harmonize a figured bass it might be useful for the figures to indicate what kind of 7th chord voicing is most appropriate in that progression. Yes, we can let the player decide, but for me as a student, it might be helpful that the figures specify.
    – armani
    Nov 16 '21 at 11:05
16

Traditionally, this isn't specified. A single "7" in the figures could be performed either complete (with the chordal fifth) or incomplete (without).

Rarely, though, the figures can specify particular doublings above the bass. For instance, in a four-part setting, you might occasionally see "8/7/3" in the figures, suggesting the bass is doubled (that's the 8) with no fifth above, just a seventh and third. But as I said, this is an exception to the rule; musicians are rarely this specific with figured bass.

0
8

It really depends on the context since there is no standard way to denote this. In a harmony class, you should ask your teacher which kind of notation they would find acceptable for the omission of the fifth.

In a baroque piece, impossibly broadly speaking (baroque covers all the styles and genres encountered in over a century of music) only the opposite is possible: requiring the fifth to be there by writing in a 5 along with the 7. Only a 7 means the fifth may be omitted (and rather often is). (Of course, if both 3-7 and 5-7 appear regularly in a piece without any other apparent reason, 3-7 is probably without 5. Also in certain contexts the third can be omitted and not the fifth.) There are some situations for which primary sources specify rules, such as playing sequences of sevenths resolving to sixths on a stepwise descending bass being without a fifth (of course as with any rule there are exceptions).

Fortunately there is another factor beyond personal (but presumably stylistically informed) taste in the decision of whether the fifth should be played: voice leading. For example, a series of seventh chords on bass notes alternately falling by fifths and rising by fourths has a very natural voice leading if each second chord is without fifth, but becomes awkward when the fifth has to be present in each chord. Of course, this factor is strongest only in styles which require strict voice leading (such as German 4-voiced continuo); other styles (e.g. Italian continuo) are freer contrapuntally but include ideas of (a.o.) dynamics and character to guide this type of decision.

In many baroque styles however, numbering is very sparse (since the performer is expected to be able to make their own numbers, depending on the style either in advance or on the spot) so there was no real need to notate something as specific to the realisation as the omission of the fifth: any reason a composer might have to object to adding a fifth to a seventh chord should also occur to a skilled continuo player.

Post baroque, we have galant continuo and per the book of CPE Bach (yes, son of) that is, as far as it is possible to condense a whole book into one sentence, very often in three voices anyway (so there is no voice left for the fifth, but all rules in CPE’s book come with labyrinths of exceptions).

Before the baroque era there is some limited continuo too but in those cases the continuo generally plays what the melodic parts play minus diminutions, so whether the fifth should be added is decided by whether it is present in the other parts.

7
  • Thanks. I would say that the 7th chord in root position should be notated as 75 and if the 5 is omitted it should be notated as 7 only. This makes most sense to me personally.
    – armani
    Nov 16 '21 at 7:44
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    @armani unfortunately, your prescription disagrees with more than four centuries of practice. Perhaps your preference arises from a desire to ascribe a function to figured bass that its practitioners never intended. Consider: as a performance tool, figured bass is supposed to be an abbreviation. Had composers wanted such specificity, they would have written out a second staff for the right hand. Similarly, in harmonic analysis, the presence or absence of a fifth in a seventh chord changes nothing, so specifying it is unnecessary.
    – phoog
    Nov 16 '21 at 8:43
  • It arises from a desire to indicate notes above a given bass note which is supposed to be the purpose of figured bass. If 7 was meant as a shorthand for a 7th chord in root position and if the 7 could mean either with a 5th or without a 5th then why cant we notate a 7th chord in root position as 75 meaning that if you see a 7 only, the 5th would be omitted?
    – armani
    Nov 16 '21 at 9:23
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    @armani the notation you propose is logical, consistent and usable, it is just not what was used historically. If you want to notate precisely whether the fifth should be omitted or not you should come up with your own system, as you seem to have, but just be aware that it has nothing to do with historical or common practice.
    – 11684
    Nov 16 '21 at 11:25
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    Well traditionally figured bass is not at all meant to indicate exactly the notes which are to be played, only the general harmonic skeleton (although there are pieces with very specific and detailed figures those are the exception). The performer has many degrees of freedom including the option to extend harmonies when a figure is present. Of course, if you really want to use figured bass to indicate exact notes, nobody is stopping you, but that is not what the system is meant for and you would most probably be better off taking a different system instead of modifying figured bass notation.
    – 11684
    Nov 17 '21 at 12:19
5

Chord notation systems, including figured bass, leave room for interpretation. It lets the performer or the arranger to interpret the composition their own way. In order to specify the exact notes to be played, perhaps it's better to write them down, rather than use chord notation.

Figured bass notation indicates what notes are supposed to be played. Everything else is interpretation, following style and conventions. In particular there is no way to indicate that a given note should not be played.

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