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, 2019 at 14:05
  • 1
    @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 ;-) Mar 17, 2019 at 14:12

3 Answers 3


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.

  • I agree with this answer in terms of historical figured bass notations, though the question asks about theory exams and "analyses." In both of those cases, extended dashes are commonly employed to indicate upper voice motion such as suspensions.
    – Athanasius
    Jan 14, 2020 at 18:31

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, 2019 at 17:29
  • @phoog: thank you. I’ve edited my example and my comment. Apr 18, 2019 at 5:23
  • I agree with this answer, but would note the difference in the styles of "dash" employed. The sort of long extended dash that connects two numbers is most frequently seen in theory book examples and in analyses, rather than practical examples of figured bass. As phoog notes, in practical figured bass, short dashes are generally used to indicate the upper voices extending over a change in bass. The example quoted in the question seems to be poorly edited or using a hybrid system.
    – Athanasius
    Jan 14, 2020 at 18:28

...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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