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I am wondering if there are better ways to remember the figured bass. I'm having trouble remembering all of the inversions for triads and sevenths, and I've been trying to memorize them for a few months now.

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  • What was your method to memorize? // I suggest using Anki for your purpose apps.ankiweb.net . Find a kind of procedure here music.stackexchange.com/a/125706/88467 , to transfer information like from here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Figured_bass#Numbers , or from your own references.
    – MS-SPO
    Dec 5, 2022 at 11:47
  • I suspect you mean "triads" (i.e., Major, minor, diminished, and augmented)? The term "trichords" is used in serial music, and figures aren't used for that.
    – Aaron
    Dec 5, 2022 at 12:12
  • Are there specific ones you know and specific ones you get stuck on?
    – Aaron
    Dec 5, 2022 at 12:13
  • Better ways than what? Which ways have you been using so far? Dec 5, 2022 at 12:18
  • Do you mean actual figured bass or just their use in Roman numeral harmonic analysis? Dec 5, 2022 at 23:54

3 Answers 3

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I imagine you're asking because you need to use these figures to indicate inversion when doing harmonic analysis—in other words, you're writing figured bass. It might be overkill, but one way to become more familiar would be to practice reading it. In the baroque period, chordal accompaniment (like, say, a keyboard) was notated not by writing out the entire chord, but by writing the bass line and adding figures. You could try finding some simple basso continuo parts and playing through them; that would get you clear on the difference between "6" and "6/4" quickly.

We become literate in human languages by reading as well as writing, and the best way to understand music theory is to play it, not just look at it.

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In terms of seeing the figures and knowing what inversion it is, there's a friendly pattern for seventh-chord figures:

  • Root position is 7
  • First inversion is 6 5 3, shortened to 6 5
  • Second inversion is 6 4 3, shortened to 4 3
  • Third inversion is 6 4 2, shortened to 4 2 and sometimes just 2

When you string these together, then, you see a friendly descending pattern of 7 \ 6 5 \ 4 3 \ (4) 2.

If you're identifying the figured bass from a score, remember that figured bass literally just measures the intervals above the bass. As such, there's almost no need to memorize these; instead, whenever you see a chord, just count the intervals above the bass, and there's your figured bass!

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Focus on the significance of just these numbers...

6, 7, 9, 6/4, 5, 3, 2

...and how they are the unique markers of the numerous complete figures.

Here are the details of matching those significant numbers to figures.

Like most things this is something that will eventually get fixed in your memory from repeated use. But there are two important points to keep in mind:

  • figures are used primary for chord inversions
  • figures are often shorted, ex. 6/3 is often given as just 6, only this significant figure are given

Recognizing the significant figure is the way to get a handle on reading/remembering all the figures.

The figures above a root position chord would be 3 5 7 9 - we won't go higher than the 9 in common practice for most everything.

The "default" chord is a triad in root position. No figures means it is the default chord, so figures 3 5 are not normally used for root position triads.

Chord extensions beyond a root position triad do require figures, usually that would mean a 7 or 9, but you might see 11 and 13 in less common cases. At any rate, if these extended chord are in root position, they will have only one figure.

The inversion of figures 3 5 7 9 is 6 4 2, and the 9 normally won't be inverted.

If a chord is inverted it must have at least one of the 6 4 2 figures.

Inverted seventh chords are funny because they will combine figures from both sets 6 4 2 and 3 5.

Now we can start sorting out what are the really unique figures found in each inversion.

Single figures

  • Root position triads have no figures
  • Extended root position chords include 7, 9, and less commonly 11 and 13
  • First inversion triad 6/3 is often shortened to 6

Two figures

  • Second inversion triad needs both figures 6/4
  • Seventh chord 6/5/3 is often shortened to just 6/5
  • Seventh chord 6/4/3 is often shortened to just 4/3
  • Seventh chord 6/4/2 is often shortened to just 4/2

You need to be aware of the single versus two figure difference, but with that in mind the truly significant figures are then:

  • 6 (used alone, it's a first inversion triad)
  • 7 (root position, you won't normally see this with an inverted chord)
  • 9 (root position, you won't normally see this with an inverted chord)
  • 6/4 (you always need both for a second inversion triad)
  • look for 5 when there are 2+ figures (in 6/5/3 or 6/5)
  • look for 3 when there are 2+ figures (in 6/4/3 or 4/3)
  • look for 2 when there are 2+ figures (in 6/4/2 or 4/2)

That's only 7 figures to become sensitive to, and you then take a second step to relate them back to their more complete notation.

Extended chord figures...

  • 11 (root position, rare)
  • 13 (root position, rare)

...aren't seen as much, but are pretty easy to remember.

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