2 Inversions symbols (figured bass)

Figured bass is a shorthand method of indicating the chords to be played above a given bass melody. In the Baroque period (about 1600 to 1750), keyboard players would improvise their parts from these “figures.” This method saved space on the paper as well as time for the composer. These figured bass symbols are still used extensively in the analysis of music in music theory, and we will use them to label inversions of chords.

Here is a table reviewing the type of inversions, which note of the triad is lowest for that inversion, and the figured bass symbol used to label each.

Figured bass symbols

Root position (root is lowest pitch) (no label)
1st inversion (3rd is lowest pitch) 6
2nd inversion (5th is lowest pitch) 6

It may be helpful to keep in mind that the figures always indicate the interval size above the bass tone (lowest-sounding pitch). Not every interval is indicated by the figured bass. For example, a bass tone without any figures indicates a triad in root position (the 3rd and 5th above the bass is assumed). In the examples that follow, the figures in parentheses are generally omitted from the labeling of a chord. The last chord on each staff shows how these chords would be labeled using both Roman numerals and figured bass symbols. In the key of C major, this F chord would be the subdominant (IV).

Notice (in the key of C major) how the subdominant chord is labeled using Roman numerals and figured bass: