In the ABRSM theory exams, a 4-3, 7-6 or 9-8 suspension always has a dash between the two numbers in the figured bass. I have not found this to be the case in analyses that I have looked at. So is the dash just to make suspensions obvious to students or is it common practice to figure suspensions this way?

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  • Just in case, are you sure those numbers are figured bass? If there is ever more than one note in the bass playing at once, I don't think it's figured bass anymore. – Dekkadeci Mar 17 at 14:05
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    @Dekkadeci Thanks for checking. Yes, it is certainly figured bass but I'm struggling to clearly articulate what I mean. I've added an example. A picture is worth a thousand words after all ;-) – Shannon Duncan Mar 17 at 14:12

Is it necessary to use a dash to indicate a suspension in a figured bass?

No. It is both unnecessary and unusual.

As Albrecht Hügli notes, a dash is used when the bass note changes but the harmony (or perhaps one voice in the harmony) does not. But that's not what's happening here. In this case, an upper voice is moving, while the bass is not.

The dashes may perhaps be intended to underscore that the motion in the upper voice does not represent a change in the harmony, since in both cases the voice is leaping from one chord tone to another. But this notation is not commonly seen in figured bass writing from the baroque period. A suspension is normally indicated by placing the figures for the moving voice in sequence horizontally. In other words, the hyphen appearing between the seven and the six in your example would be absent.


or is it common practice to figure suspensions this way?

I can’t tell you whether it was common practice for that period. But the explanation of musescore shows that it’s possible to notate this today.

The dash assigns that the upper voices or the bass don't change.

enter image description here A horizontal line indicates a changes of voicing or a change of harmony. This may take place over a stable or an active bass. Note that in this situation it is customary not to abbreviate a five-three chord.


  • That function of the dash applies when the bass note changes but the upper voice note (or an upper voice note) does not. But here, the bass note remains the same while the upper voice changes. – phoog Apr 16 at 17:29
  • @phoog: thank you. I’ve edited my example and my comment. – Albrecht Hügli Apr 18 at 5:23

...is it common practice to figure suspensions this way?

It seems no. The line after a figure means hold the initial chord while the bass changes.

I had to look this up so I can't claim scholarly knowledge.

Resources to compare against...

J.G. Albrechtsberger's collected writings on thorough-bass, harmony, and composition

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Robert Kelley, Ph.D., How to Realize a Figured Bass: An Introduction to Thoroughbass

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George Frideric Handel, David Ledbetter, Continuo playing according to Handel: his figured bass exercises, Oxford University Press, 1990

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