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I've done some reading and I've discovered that our modern system of music theory (I'm looking at you Roman numeral analysis) is not the same system that most of the great composers used, including the "Big Three": Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. Apparently, they favored the system of thoroughbass. Bach himself was supposedly against Rameau's theory of harmony, from which our modern system is derived.

I did a little more digging and I managed to find some good texts that I would like to study; however, there are just so many to choose from. It seems that thoroughbass was broken down into two different goals, writing down a realization (taking as much time as necessary to do this), and realizing a figured bass extemporaneously at a keyboard, as if sight reading.

My question is this: What is the modern approach to teaching/learning thoroughbass?


I wonder if a few particular items are still used in modern curricula:

It seems to me that the C.P.E Bach essay, as well as J.S. Bach's precepts and principles, are well known, but are a little difficult. There's also the Albrechtsberger book and a book that seems to be written by Mozart on the subject, though I don't know if the claim of Mozart's authorship is reliable.

Ultimately, I would like to be able to look at a figured bass and be able to provide a realization, either written down or extemporized, in any key.

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    It's not clear from your question whether you're new only to thoroughbass, or to a study of harmony and counterpoint in general. As for books: I chose figured bass realization as part of the practical requirements for my diploma examinations. I found Figured Bass Accompaniment by Peter Williams very useful. Depending on where you live, though, it might be difficult to get hold of it.
    – user48353
    Mar 28, 2019 at 21:54

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As someone who is currently learning to play from figured bass on the harpsichord, I can recommend starting with the book "Continuo Playing According to Handel: His figured bass exercises" edited and with commentary by David Ledbetter.

The exercises start with just root position chords for the first exercise and mostly add one new concept with each exercise. While the exercises (basses) are by Handel, the commentary, guidance and sample realizations are by the editor. He gives guidance on realizing the basses in the standard 1+3 style (1 "voice" in the LH, 3 in the RH). This is a good place to start, but be aware that it doesn't stop there – skilled harpsichordists will often use more voices, as well as having more than one voice in the LH.

One thing that I feel would have been useful to add to the book is transposed versions of the exercises (particularly the early ones) to build fluency in different keys. However, you can make these yourself either with software or by writing them out by hand.

It may be helpful to know that the editor has a page of corrections and additions to the book: https://davidledbetter-music.com/continuo-playing/

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There are several texts that are readable. One is available on IMSLP: https://imslp.org/wiki/Thorough-Bass_Made_Easy_(Pasquali%2C_Nicolo)

Arnold's two volume set is available from Dover so not too expensive. Not all thorough bass manuals agree with each other. Likewise, much modern stuff (like secondary dominants AKA applied or attendent chords) were not well described until around 1890 (Francis York's and Frank Shepard's books freely available). It probably pays to look at older stuff in conjunction with modern texts.

Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven did have somewhat different educations. Bach studied with his brother and did lots of score study from well known musicians (as did others). Mozart studied with his father (a rather famous teacher at the time) and did lots (apparently) with "Partimenti" (See the site: Monuments of Partimenti) to see how various patterns were learned. Beethoven studied with Neef who was a well-known composer and teacher (and later with Haydn and Albrechtsberger). Albrechtsberger's teachings are available on the net.

All of these though use the hexachord description of scales (combined with some major-minor theory). One overlaps 6-note series with each other C-D-E-F-G-A and F-G-A-B(b)-C-D and G-A-B-C-D-E (which go by the names ut-re-mi-fa-so-la). This gives a method describing all notes from low G (gamma-ut) for several octaves. The name get funny as F can be either "ut" in the "soft" hexachord or fa in the "natural" hexachord (it doesn't occur in the "hard" hexachord.) It's rather complicated. Renaissance counterpoint used notes not describable with this system so more flats (and some sharps) were introduced and composers and performers were supposed to know how to insert unmarked accidentals. Here's a good description of hexachordal theory.

http://www2.siba.fi/muste1/index.php?id=72&la=en

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  • This seems like a good answer, but I'm curious about the characterization of secondary dominants as "modern."
    – phoog
    Mar 29, 2019 at 14:49
  • The usage of secondary dominants isn't modern; the term is fairly new. York and Shephard are the earliest I've found who called them "attendant" or "applied" chords or dominants rather than calling them a modulation (poor choice of term for key change but historically comes from hexachord theory where it makes sense; another discussion sometime.)
    – ttw
    Mar 29, 2019 at 17:34
  • Thanks, that makes a lot more sense, since secondary dominants can probably be traced back at least to the invention of F#, which of course happened long(!) before 1890.
    – phoog
    Mar 29, 2019 at 17:50
  • Yes, you’ll find a secondary dominant in Bach’s prelude BWV 848 in C# major (B#7/E#) - and many other sec. dom.s - written 1722 Mar 30, 2019 at 15:27
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Thanks to you I have found this link: https://www.musik-akademie.ch/dam/jcr:da28dd16-cec4-4f03-8b6c-56c4236bfe9f/Compendium_Generalbass_nur_Text_ohne_Audio.pdf

It's in German and translated to English. So it will be very fine to me - as I'm here to make an course in English. If you want to learn German too it will be interesting to you too.

As I've had the experience that certain courses are quite theoretical, abstract and not very musically I would prefer in general to study the figured bass on real compositions where Bach or musicians of his epoque have notated the full setting. It will be easy to find both versions in IMSLP.

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For myself and others a list of terms...

  • figured bass: a system to represent chords, synonymous with 'thorough bass'
  • basso continuo : executing a figured bass
  • partimenti : figured bass exercises to teach students harmony and practice basso continuo performance

The Art of Partimento: History, Theory, and Practice by Giorgio Sanguinetti

This isn't a collection of partmenti, but rather a text about the method and its history. Lots of musical illustrations, but not really a book from which to practice.

The Langloz Manuscript: Fugal Improvisation through Figured Bass by William Renwick (Author)

This may not have a lot of immediate practical value, but it's very interesting to read about how partimenti and figured bass as the foundation for the master skill of fugue improvization.

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TL;DR

The curriculum for one modern course (ca. 2012) is based on:

  1. Fux, The Study of Counterpoint
  2. Morris, Figured Harmony at the Keyboard
  3. Kearney, Figured Bass for Beginners

I took a course in figured bass as part of a university music degree program. It was considered an upper-level course and the prerequisite was a standard two-year music theory course, which included introductory figured bass concepts.

The foundational material in most modern music theory curricula comes from Fux's "The Study of Counterpoint" and his "species" of counterpoint. Fux lays out several "species", starting from the very simple (a melody comprising whole notes — the "cantus firmus" — against which the student writes a whole-note counterpoint) to the more complex, involving the use of suspensions.

Modern textbooks adapt Fux as preparation for the modern, triad-based major/minor system, but the original Fux is based in the pre-Rameau modal system and modeled on Palestrina. His book holds up very well as a learning model, and provides an outstanding starting point toward learning figured bass.

The counterpoint course itself used two books:

  1. R.O. Morris, Figured Harmony at the Keyboard: Part 1 (Oxford University Press, 1933).
  2. Helen Keaney, Figured Bass for Beginners (E.C. Schirmer Music Company, 1981).

The Morris book is a collection of graded exercises, with chapter-by-chapter explanations of the technique being introduced.

Kearney is a collection of standard realizations of common figured bass techniques and situations. The idea is to memorize the exercises to create a readily available "toolbox".

Used together, these books allow for the development of a very solid foundation.

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