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Figured Bass Lesson 8: Problem Areas

 Grade 7 Music Theory Q1, Adding a Figured Bass. Lesson 8: Problem Areas

In this lesson we will focus on some particularly difficult areas of figuring a bass.

Accented Passing & Auxiliary Notes

Sometimes the melody note directly above the bass note is not actually a chord note, but instead it is an accented passing note or accented auxiliary note. Take the shaded chord in this bar for example:


If we assume that the melody note to use in the chord is B, we need a chord with B and D: G major or B minor. Only a first inversion B minor chord is possible, as we can't use a second inversion G major chord here (it's not Ic but IVc).

However, notice the C natural; the accidental should alert you to the fact that the piece is modulating. The use of C natural means that the piece is changing key to G major. Remember that when a modulation occurs, the most likely chord is V7 in the new key, so we would expect a chord of D7 at this point.

Instead of using the B in the chord, we can treat it as an accented passing note, and focus on the C natural instead. This gives us two of the notes from V7a in the new key, figured with a 7 and a natural sign:

It can be tricky to spot places where an accented passing/auxiliary note occurs. Look out for key changes, and if you are ever stuck with a chord that does not seem to work, consider whether an accented passing note will fix the problem!


Decorative Notes in the Bass

Most of the time you only have one bass note to deal with. Sometimes however, the bass line is decorated, which you might find confusing. You might be wondering if you should count all the bass notes when working out the inversion, if the decoration includes chord notes. The answer is no. Only count the bass note directly above the asterisk.


The key is F major. In the shaded box, the bass note above the asterisk is Bb, but the lowest note in the group is G. E and Bb occur in chords vii° and V7. Chord vii°, being diminished, will usually only occur in first inversion, with G in the bass. But here the true bass note is Bb, not G. It is best considered as V7d – figured with 4/2.

Try to work out the function of each decorated note – which are part of the harmony? Here, the A is an auxiliary note, between Bb and G, so it’s not part of the harmony. The G, on the other hand, is an auxiliary harmony note (i.e. another note in the chord) and therefore part of the harmony.



Accidental Traps

Be very careful to add in all necessary accidental signs to your figures. Out of the following scenarios, points 3 and 4 are the trickiest to spot. With any bar which contains accidentals, analyse each chord carefully to make sure that the correct accidentals are present.

1. Chord V in a minor key piece is a major chord > raise the third of the triad.

2. An accidental given in the melody must still be shown in the figured bass.

3. A previous accidental in the bass part or melody line might need to be cancelled further along the bar – check!

4. A previous accidental in the figured bass might need to be cancelled further along the bar – check!

Here are some examples to illustrate:

1. The key is A minor. The shaded chord is the dominant, which should be E major. A sharp is needed in the figured bass:

2. The sharp in the melody line has to be shown in the figured bass:

3. The F# accidental in the bass line needs to be cancelled for chord iv, which is a D minor chord in A minor. (It was sharpened previously as an auxiliary note to prevent an augmented 2nd G#-F in the bass line).


4. The G was sharpened in the figured bass at the beginning of the bar for chord V, but the shaded chord is III, which would be augmented if it contained G#. The natural sign is needed to make the C major chord.



Watch a video of worked example of a grade 7 figured bass question here.

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