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Figured Bass Context

From: Trent J
Subject: Figured Bass Context
Date: Thu, 21 Oct 2004 12:28:57 +1000

Good Morning,

I have been advised to send an email outlining my problems with the current figured bass context.

I have been using Sibelius 3.0 and while this program is very powerful I spend far too long setting out the layout and which can be very easily changed with a wrong click which could require a lengthy symbol by symbol change if it isn’t caught earlier enough.

The two biggest points that I like about Lilypond are:

1. I can edit and enter music anywhere all that I need is a text editor and I’m on my way...

2. Most of the layout is done by the program requiring very little changing. For example when recently typesetting the vespers of Monteverdi. I retained the original note values as they show the tempo relationships within a piece. This often entails typesetting a lot of breves and semi-breves in a row. Sibelius dutifully saw these as large notes so decided to leave a lot of space between each note making the page layout of the score very unwieldily and requiring retuning each bar. Lilypond on the other hand was flawless and was able to keep the breves and semi-breves together just as if they where crotchets and quavers.

The problem I have at the moment is the figured bass support. Although it’s there (Finale 2005 takes a your on your own approach). Sibelius on the other hand supports figured bass very well and extender lines can be added using line tools which expand and contract as the music is formatted.

I’ve read many discussions about figured bass support and have found that the main problems where figured bass support needs to be beefed up are as follows:

• Inserting a single number under each note is fine. But the problems occur when multiple numbers are needed eg. 6 4 2 in a column and more so with 6 (#)4# 2 ( the bracketed sharp indicates that the sharp can be placed either side). The sharp figure when placed on the left creates misaligns the columns and on the right there is a space between the 4 and sharp which might be seen as a cadence rather than and sharpened 4th. One way to avoid this I might suggest is to have a dedicated font with all the figured bass symbols that are commonly used. One example is at It might be appropriate that the sharp, natural and flat’s be added to the numbers to form one character ie. #3 as one character or 3# as one character. These would then be needed for numbers two up to 9 but excluding 8. This would then eliminate the alignment problems as the figure would only be one character not two. There would also need the creation of explicit slash and plus characters yet again the website above show which ones to be slashed etc. Now that’s the easy bit...

• The harder bit is the extender lines they pose the bigger problem I guess with how lilypond works that they would require separate schemes. While I guess the numbers is a part of the lyrics/text markup, extender lines complicate this scheme as they lines can either be under one note or continued across several notes. They can even be column specific eg. If you’re to have a 6 4 2 chord it is feasible that the 4 and 2 is held across a series of notes while the six may change to a seven and the 2 may change to a 3 later on eg.

  *   *     *               *   *   *
  6   ------ 7 -------------------------
  4  ------------------------------------
  2  --------------------------- #3  ----  etc

As can be seen here it's the mixture of the two schemes that cause the problems. Could a figured bass scheme be based on columns. Only four or five columns would be neded e.g.

Figured bass
{ { 6 4 2 }4 { __ __ __ }4 { 7 __ __ }2 etc... the numbers outside the brackets could indicate the beat value and the underscore lines that occur in a particular column form a continuous line until that column is changed or terminated (ie no value entered).

The other way is to keep the lines in a seperate scheme.
This might be a better way since extender lines are not use in every figured bass... mainly french scores and religious or any other works that have an organ conitnuo.

so that a figured bass might be enetered normally and the extender lines take the form of

{ \column 3 __2. } ie an extender line continues in column 3 for 3 beats.

Finally the format of the numbers requires they be built from top to bottom under a note and not built from the bottom up.

I don't know what other people think but the figured bass should go underneath the bass part in a full score and might in some way be placed above the bass line in a part. This is for two reasons.

1. If the figured bass was to go above the bass part in a full score then a score would have to have a large white gap between the bass part and the previous stave. This might not be a problem with scores that have a detailed figured bass but would look weird for scores that use figured bass symbols very sparingly. Eg. In a lot of Monteverdi’s music there is only an indication occasionally that the major third (so only a sharp symbol) is to be played. 2. Parts could show the figured bass parts above since it’s the only part shown and would be of great advantage to a continuo player as it is a reminder that the figured pitches should be played above the bass notes and not below hence why some manuscripts/scores have the figured bass above the stave since the continuo part was to be ‘improvised’ above the bass part.

I hope this email might prompt some further discussion and an eventual inclusion on an excellent figured bass system into an already excellent program.


Trent Johnston...

P.S. I think its lunacy to try and provide midi output for a figured bass system since it’s not there for a player to play only chords but rather as a skeleton for improvising and accompaniment. It should remain and only be a text system.

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