In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Continuo

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Modern Tutorials

Music Continuo
Thérèse de Goede
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0185


The term basso continuo (English: continuo, figured bass, thoroughbass, throughbass; German: Generalbass, Generalbaß, bezifferte Bass; French: basse continue, basse chiffrée; Italian: basso seguente, basso continuo, basso numerato) refers to a type of accompaniment for which the composer provides only a bass line, over which a continuo player extemporizes an essentially chordal accompaniment on a chordal instrument. It may also refer to the lowest part of a composition, indicating a bowed or wind bass instrument. Continuo playing developed in Spain and Italy in the 16th century and was adopted throughout Europe from at least 1550 to at least c. 1815 (it was mentioned in Jane Austen’s book Pride and Prejudice, in 1813). Continuo accompaniment was employed in practically every musical genre, from compositions for vocal or instrumental solo works to orchestral works. It was developed for reasons of convenience and spread primarily with the rise of new styles of vocal and instrumental solo music. While before c. 1600 it had been common practice for accompanists to make a score for lute or keyboard from the separately printed parts of a composition, playing from a bass was more practical and time saving, and the inner parts of the accompaniment were now considered less important and only served as filling (Giovanni Battista Doni, Compendio del trattato de’ generi e de’ modi della musica, Rome, 1635). Although basso continuo is persistently referred to by many as “figured bass,” even with reference to Monteverdi’s music (The Early Baroque Era. Edited by Curtis Price. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993, p. 10.) most music in the 17th century, particularly Italian music, had unfigured or only sparsely figured bass lines, and unfigured bass lines can be found in the 18th century as well, for example in operas and cantatas by Handel and in works by J. S. Bach. A famous example is the first aria from Bach’s cantata Amore traditore (BWV 203). On the other hand, some composers tried to make their requirements for the realization as clear as possible by adding figures indicating melodic motion. This was done by Giulio Caccini (1602), Iacopo Peri (1609), Michel Lambert (1660), and J. S. Bach, among others, which makes the border with obbligato accompaniments not completely distinctive. A figured bass has numbers placed below or over the bass notes, indicating single or combined intervals that imply or form the harmony. If the bass is unfigured, the player is supposed to know the rules governing harmony and voice leading. In the early 17th century, these rules were still in agreement with 16th-century counterpoint rules, and in the course of the 17th century they gradually began to reflect the principles of tonal harmony.

General Overviews

There is only one work that attempts to treat all historical sources on basso continuo: Arnold 2003, which gives detailed information about harmony and styles and covers the entire continuo era. Zappulla 2000 treats the 17th- and 18th-century sources in France. Rampe 2014 presents all aspects of continuo from 1600 to 1800 in concise form.

  • Arnold, Franck Thomas. The Art of Accompaniment from a Thorough-Bass. 2 vols. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003.

    First printed in 1931, this monumental study discusses almost all treatises of the 17th and 18th centuries and covers every topic of harmony and performance practice therein. Although lacking in recognition of the idiomatic aspects of 17th-century harmony, the book is still the most important work on the subject and indispensable because of its complete translations of the early-17th-century treatises and the translation of essential parts of all larger treatises.

  • Rampe, Siegbert. Generalbasspraxis 1600–1800. Laaber, Germany: Laaber Verlag, 2014.

    Compendium about historical basso continuo practice between 1600 and 1800 on keyboard and plucked instruments. The material is presented on the basis of original sources and provides information about harmony and styles of texture, with music examples.

  • Zappulla, Robert. Figured Bass Accompaniment in France. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2000.

    This large study covers the entire basso continuo period in France. Includes short descriptions of every treatise. Every issue regarding harmony or performance practice is examined separately and related to every treatise.

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