Friday, January 27,2011: Basso Confusiyou

Which musical instrument case holds the basso continuo? Read on to find out the joke.

Basso Continuo, Basso Confusiyou

What’s big and Baroque, used by Bach, and played by string players to provide the bass in Baroque music?

It’s the basso continuo. And it doesn’t really exist.

Well, not as an instrument like the cello or double bass, anyway. It’s not something you can hold in your hands.

To find out exactly what it is, Opus Osm consulted dictionaries and interviewed our musicologist Sam Goldscheider.

We even went to a concert to watch a performance of Bach’s Sonata BWV 1038, featuring musicians who played the “flute, violin, cello, and basso continuo.”

And none of them exactly agree with the others’ definitions.

“Basso continuo is just a short-hand way of writing down the harmony part in music,” musicologist Goldscheider says.

“It’s a sequence of bass notes, and every note played on the beat has its own base,” explains violinist Jan Šmydke of the Karlínské Komorní Studio, which isn’t really a studio, either; it’s a group of string players and their invited guests. (They performed the Bach.)

“It’s a bass part that runs continuously through a work of Baroque music,” claims an online music dictionary. Wikipedia gives a lengthy and credible description, while the Oxford Studijní Slovník (student’s dictionary of English, with Czech translations) not surprisingly gives none at all, venturing only as far as “bassoon” in the musical instruments “b” category.

As it turns out, all of our sources are correct. The basso continuo is the bass in some Baroque works. It can be a continuous series of notes, called thoroughbass, a kind of running bass, like you can hear in jazz or rock even today.

Normal notes (top), and figured bass notation at the bottom (Purcell's Thy Hand, Belinda, 1689)

Or the basso continuo can be figured. That simply means that some of those notes can be played simultaneously to form a chord (three or four notes together). Those notes aren’t written in the normal way; they’re just indicated by a number, as Wikipedia shows (right).

The art and advantage of playing basso continuo is that it’s up to the taste and ability of the musician to improvise the exact formation of the chords in a figured basso continuo. All three (or more) notes in the chord must be there, but it’s up to the musician to decide exactly how they will be “stacked” together.

Basso continuo can therefore only be played on instruments capable of making chords – organ, harpsichord, or harp, for example. Although the figured method of short-hand died out with Baroque music, very good jazz musicians still study the notes in Bach’s compositions – including his thoroughbass – today.

So now you can see how basso continuo can exist, when it doesn’t really exist; and how it’s a very old, today rare — and a very current and contemporary — technique. — oo

– Mary Matz

Photo Credits: Top: Miroslav Setnička; bottom, Wikipedia


  1. Jan Šmydke
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    Dear Mary, it’s a nice article! However I still think the reader may feel a bit confused of what that actually is. It’s nothing extraterrestial, but it’s hard to explain in one sentence. So in points:

    - B.C. is a characteristic feature of all the baroque music.

    - In baroque music there is a bass line on every beat (i.e. it does not happen for a bass note to be missing on a beat). These bass notes make the base for a chord (which gives the typical character or temper to that particular beat).

    - Thus every beat has a chord given by the uninteruptable sequence of bass notes – it’s why it is called *basso continuo*

    - usually (always) only the bass notes are written in the sheet plus a shorthand for that particular chord, which is given by numbers

    - In an ensemble, the b.c. means usually a group of instruments which play the bass line (double bass or bassoon) plus the chords (typically harpsichord)

    - A typical example of a baroque music is a *trio sonata*. The basso continuo creates a landscape of varying temper (by the sequence of chords of different character) and this forms the ground upon which two melodic instruments can happily play together with tones (like a violin and oboe do)

    I hope this helps a little.

    Jan Šmydke

  2. Posted January 31, 2012 at 7:34 am

    Thanks for your helpful additions, Jan! Readers of all backgrounds (from professional musicians to those who don’t really know what a chord is) can find something interesting in your comments. Thanks!
    Mary Matz, editor

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