This is for piano.

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What are the '6' and '5' that are stacked on each other at the bottom?

  • @PiedPiper F in the bass, D in the discant, you’ve already got 36. Assume that harmony has a seventh and you get 56. Nothing strange to me, especially as this is clearly a sixte ajoutée progression (IV[56] V I).
    – Lazy
    Commented Mar 25 at 13:01

1 Answer 1


This is figured bass. Subject to several conventions, it indicates the harmony by indicating which intervals above the bass note are in the chord. The idea is that someone playing a chordal instrument (organ, harpsichord, or other keyboard, or lute, guitar, etc.) would use these numbers to play, uh, chords. The practice began around the beginning of the baroque period, around 1600, and persisted for a couple of centuries until the use of a keyboard instrument as a regular member of the orchestra fell out of favor, and the practice of fully writing out piano parts for songs and instrumental sonatas became ubiquitous.

The main convention is that an absence of numbers implies 3 and 5; 6 by itself means 3 and 6, and 7 by itself means 3, 5, and 7. The numbers can be decorated with flat or sharp signs, but more commonly if one of the chord tones is to be sharpened, a slash is drawn through the corresponding figure. A sharp sign by itself refers to the third, meaning ♯3 and 5. The accidentals are typically relative to the diatonic scale as determined by the key signature, so a G7 chord in a piece in G major would normally be written ♭7 even though that figure denotes an F♮.

The figure 5 and 6 denotes a seventh chord in first inversion, i.e., with the third in the bass. So the first beat in the example would be notated on a lead sheet as G7/B.

  • 1
    Nes and yo. Figured bass is more than simply a way of ”telling pianists what chords to play“. Figured bass is a way of specifying harmony and allows for a composing style that is typical for baroque era which works by only writing out bass and melodies and annotating the harmony. This is important as an baroque ensemble would have a range of possible instruments playing the baseline or harmony and you do not want to write parts for all such possible instruments. It is essentially the baroque interpretation of a leadsheet.
    – Lazy
    Commented Mar 25 at 13:08
  • 1
    @Lazy figured bass was certainly used as a compositional tool, but it was originally (around 1600) indeed a performance shorthand. Consider Bach's performance materials: the scores typically have no figures (because you can see what the chord is from the other parts), but keyboard parts often do, and cello parts do not. The inescapable conclusion is that the figures are there for the benefit of the keyboard player. They weren't making a single part that would be photocopied for the entire continuo group; these were hand copied parts, each one for a specific purpose, and only one got figures.
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 25 at 13:21
  • Yes, of course they have been used that way. My point is that they are even more than that and closely tied to the baroque way of thinking about music. And of course a cello and bassoon does not read figures. But what about say an archlute player?
    – Lazy
    Commented Mar 25 at 13:28
  • Would it be fair to say that figured bass covers similar ground for baroque music as chord symbols do for more recent music?  Both types of notation indicate an accompaniment in bass and chords (with the performers needing to make some choices as to voicing, rhythm, passing notes, etc.) — though of course figured bass makes the entire bassline explicit, while chord symbols can leave much more to the bassist.
    – gidds
    Commented Mar 25 at 22:54
  • @gidds I think that's perfectly fair to say. I reckon there are more similarities than differences.
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 26 at 7:06

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