I wonder when and by whom figured bass has been introduced as synonym for thorough bass in the basso continuo. In my view this must be somehow an error or a misunderstanding of figurierter bass in German.

What is figured there? I don’t think with the term are meant the numbers assigning the inversion...

In an ordinary thorough bass there has nothing to be figured, except it is ornamented.

(Or is figured bass an under conceptual term of thorough bass only standing for those settings where the bass is ornamented? Then I could understand it.)


3 Answers 3


I don't think it is a "misunderstanding" at all. It is just the fact that the English word "thorough" has changed its meaning over time. The original meaning only survives in a few compound words like "thoroughfare."

In Old English there were two alternative spellings of the modern adjective through, i.e. thurh and thuruh. The spelling "thorough" dates from the 15th century but has now almost died out.

The modern English terms used in teaching harmony simply "figured bass" and "unfigured bass" depending on whether the given bass line is marked with figures (i.e. numbers) or not.

For the historical meaning, the usual words used in English are the Italian terms "continuo" or "basso continuo". The phrase "thorough bass" was use in 18th century English, but doesn't make any literal sense in 21st century English.

  • Your explanation of through was clear to me - but maybe useful for other users? Yours is the second answer saying figured stands rather for rather beziffert. Oct 11, 2019 at 17:29

I have never heard "figurierter Baß". "Figured bass" seems to me more like a cognate of "bezifferter Baß", a descriptive name for the notation practice for the functional instrumental group "Generalbaß".


This is the German translation by google of my question:

Ich frage mich, wann und von wem figurierter Bass als Synonym für durchgehenden Bass im Basso continuo eingeführt wurde. Meiner Meinung nach muss dies irgendwie ein Irrtum oder ein Missverständnis des figurierten Basses auf Deutsch sein.

(I sometimes translate my text here into German to see whether my writing makes any sense...)

If you campare the bold written words they are just the same: figured bass is figurierter Bass in German.

And: figure stands for number!

figure /ˈfɪɡə/ Learn to pronounce noun noun: figure; plural noun: figures 1. a number, especially one which forms part of official statistics or relates to the financial performance of a company. "the trade figures"

and has nothing to do with the figures like ornaments or variations.

also here we can see that Lilypond is relating figured with "ciphered" (like chiffrée in French and cifrado in Spanish ...)

So I have to agree that the misconception was on my side:

I was associating figuriert with figured as figurierter Bass is the German translation of figured bass in English.

But "figurierter Bass" in German means not something completely different but it is - sometimes - a special case of thorough bass:

*Figuriert (1840)

von August Gathy (Hg.)

Figuriert, Fiorito, Figuré, mit Figuren aus melodischen Haupt- und Nebennoten bestehend ausgeschmückt. Figurierter Bass, eine in verschiedenen Figuren sich bewegende Bassstimme. Figurierte Begleitung, eine mit melodischen Figuren verzierte Begleitung. Figurierte Kadenz, eine in Solostimmen angebrachte und oft dem Geschmack des Ausführers [Interpreten] überlassene Verzierung der Schlussfermate. Figurierter Chor, ein Chor, der zu einer einfach geführten Choralmelodie einen mit derselben harmonierenden Gesang als Begleitung vorträgt, wie das häufig in Motetten der Fall ist. Figurierter Choral, ein solcher, in welchem von einer Stimme der einfache Cantus firmus geführt wird, während die übrigen diese mit mit verschiedenen Veränderungen und fugenartigen Nachahmungen begleiten (viele von Sebast. Bach). Figurierter Kontrapunkt, ein Satz, in welchem zu einem festen Gesang eine Gegenmelodie mit vermischten Notenfiguren gesetzt ist. Figurierter Gesang, ein mit Nebennoten verzierter, in strengem Takt geführter Gesang, so viel wie Figuralgesang. Figurierte Harmonie, eine Harmonie, in welcher mehrere durchgehende Nebenakkorde vorkommen.

[Gathy Encyklopädie Musik-Wissenschaft 1840, 127

This is the English translation:


Figurine, Fiorito, Figuré, decorated with figures consisting of melodic> main and minor notes. Figurinated bass, a bass voice moving in different figured. Figurated accompaniment, an accompaniment decorated with melodic figures Figurined cadenza, an ornament of the final part attached to solo voices and often left to the taste of the exporter [interpreter]. A figured choir, a chorus that accompanies a simple chorale melody accompanied by a harmonious chant, as is often the case in motets. Figurated chorale, one in which the single cantus firmus is led by one voice, while the rest Accompanying them with various changes and fugal imitations (many by Sebast. Bach) Figurated counterpoint, a movement in which a counter-melody with mixed note figures is set to a fixed vocal. Figurinated song, a side-note-chanting, conducted in strict rhythm, as much as figural singing. Figurined harmony, a harmony in which several continuous secondary chords occur.

[Gathy Encyclopedia Music Science 1840, 127]

We can read hear the words figure, figurin, fihured, figurined, figurated, (I think not all of them make sense.) but all terms describing the same kind of phenomena of musical composing and texting: deacorating, ornamenting, varying a melodic line by smaller notevalues.

Like the following example may show:

enter image description here

(a simple figured bass)

enter image description here

(a figurated = ornamented figured bass)

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