Teach Yourself Music Theory – 31.) Figured-Bass and Lead-Sheet Notation

Even though we have been using the staff and writing notes to communicate which notes to play, there are other ways of notating music.

The first way we are going to talk about is figured-bass, which is a more “classical music way” of using Roman numerals and symbols to notate what chords to play in relation to the key.  To notate with figured-bass, you take the following steps:

  • Start by finding the key that you are in (with the example below, we are in C major)
  • Next, determine the chord harmonies with their qualities and inversion
  • Place a Roman numeral underneath each chord, with the numeric value corresponding to the root of the chord in relation to the kay
  • If it is a major triad, use uppercase letters
  • If it is a minor triad, use lowercase letters
  • If it is a diminished triad, use lowercase letters plus an “ o “ symbol
  • If it is an augmented triad, use uppercase letters plus a “ + “ symbol
  • Finally, add extra figures if inverted
  • If it is in first inversion, add a “ 6 “
  • If it is in second inversion, add a “ 6 “ with a “ 4 “ below it

Notice how the “ 6 “ and “ 4 “ correspond to the interval made with the root during an inversion.

Another way is lead-sheet, which is a way commonly found in jazz, pop, and rock tunes of writing out the letter names, chord qualities, as well as inversions of the harmonies.  To notate in a lead-sheet style, you take the following steps:

  • Determine the root of the chord and write it in an uppercase letter above the chord
  • If it is a major triad, do nothing more for its chord quality
  • If it is a minor triad, add “ min “
  • If it is a diminished triad, add an “ o “ symbol
  • If it is an augmented triad, add a “ + “ symbol
  • Finally, add extra figures if inverted
  • Add a slash mark “ / “ and write the bass note after it

Tah-dah!  There you have it.  Give it some practice, but we will be using these forms of communicating and writing for now on.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read! Feel free to comment, share, and subscribe for more daily tips below! Till next time.

Author: Bryan M. Waring

Bryan Waring is a graduate of USM's School of Music with a B.M. in Performance – Composition and is now attending Belmont University for a M.M. in Commercial Media – Composition & Arranging. During his time at USM, he studied violin with Dino Liva and composition with Dr. Daniel Sonenberg, as well as has premiered several pieces during the semiannual Composer's Ensemble concert series. In 2017, Bryan was a writer for the original musical theater work of "Molded By The Flow," directed by Paul Dresher and Rinde Eckert. Outside of school, Bryan has been involved with writing music for videogame developers at Portland's CI2 Lab, collaborating with the King Tide Party, and studying with Larry Groupé (Straw Dogs) in San Diego. Now living in Nashville. Along with composing, Bryan teaches music to children, receiving the Master Teacher Award for his work at ESF Camps; and does audio engineering for live ensembles. Besides talents in music, Bryan is a team-player in any competitive work environment; equipped with skills in leadership, organization, mathematics, creativity, communication, and managing. On the side, Bryan has worked as a model for several skilled artists in the New England area. Among his other accomplishments include obtaining the rank of Eagle Scout in April 2013 with a project of building a side parking area with guide rails for Webb Mountain Park in Monroe, CT.

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