Figured bass, or thoroughbass, is a kind of integer musical notation used to indicate intervals, chords, and nonchord tones, in relation to a bass note. Figured bass is closely associated with basso continuo, an accompaniment used in almost all genres of music in the Baroque period, though rarely in modern music.
Other systems for denoting or representing chords include: plain staff notation, used in classical music, Roman numerals, commonly used in harmonic analysis, macro symbols, sometimes used in modern musicology, and various names and symbols used in jazz and popular music.
Basso continuo parts, almost universal in the Baroque era (1600-1750), provided the harmonic structure of the music. The phrase is often shortened to continuo, and the instrumentalists playing the continuo part, if more than one, are called the continuo group. The titles of many Baroque works make mention of the continuo section, such as J. S. Bach's Concerto for 2 violins, strings and continuo in D minor.
The makeup of the continuo group is often left to the discretion of the performers, and practice varied enormously within the Baroque period. At least one instrument capable of playing chords must be included, such as a harpsichord, organ, lute, theorbo, guitar, or harp. In addition, any number of instruments which play in the bass register may be included, such as cello, double bass, bass viol, or bassoon. The most common combination, at least in modern performances, is harpsichord and cello for instrumental works and secular vocal works, such as operas, and organ for sacred music. Very rarely, however, in the Baroque period, the composer requested specifically for a certain instrument (or instruments) to play the continuo. In addition, the mere composition of certain works seems to require certain kind of instruments (for instance, Vivaldi's Stabat Mater seems to require an organ, and not a harpsichord).
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