Continuo Playing on Baroque Lute – Lesson three: basic rules

Lesson one: notes, intervals, scales and chords
Lesson two: exercises
Lesson three: basic rules
Lesson four: first practical steps
Lesson five: three songs by Telemann

Lesson three: basic rules

For those of you who never played any continuo before, I must first explain a few things. To play continuo, one must follow a number of rules. First of all, one must always play the bass line, never any notes below the bass line and one must add chords above the bass where appropriate. What chord is to be played, is written in figures underneath, or above, the bass line. The figures tell you which intervals you must build upon the bass note to get the desired chord. If you have free fingers and some imagination, or have taken the time to prepare yourself, you might want to embellish your part with melodies and other niceties, but as long as you play the bass line, with the occasional chord above it, you are already playing continuo.

Seventh chord

In lesson one we have learned about intervals and chords: two stacked thirds form a triad. Three stacked thirds will form a seventh chord, so called because the interval between the root of the chord and the highest note is a seventh. There are many varieties of seventh chords, but for practical purposes the dominant seventh chord is enough to be familiar with for the moment. It is made by adding a minor third on top of a major triad. Here is the dominant seventh chord on c.


Chord inversions

If the root of a chord is the lowest note, the chord is said to be in its root position. If the second note of the chord, the third, is the lowest note, the chord is said to be in its first inversion. If the third note of the chord, the fifth, is the lowest note, the chord is said to be in its second inversion. It is useful to be aware of this, and not to simply stack intervals on a given bass note, as being aware of inversions will make it easier to use familiar chord shapes.



The figures tell you which intervals to build upon the bass note. The result will be a chord.

Unless otherwise specified, you must always play a third and a fifth above the bass note, making a triad. This is regarded as understood, so the figures 3 and 5 are only given in special circumstances. If you are to play something else than this simple triad, the figures will tell you which intervals to stack on the bass. Be aware that often the figures are abbreviations of chords, and more notes are supposed to be played than those indicated.

For now it is enough to be able to play the following figures, with their alterations.

Figure Intervals to play upon the bass
no figures third and fifth
3 third and fifth
4 fourth and fifth
5 third and fifth
6 third and sixth
7 third, fifth and seventh
same chord as on bass note before
third and fifth
fourth and sixth

In what octaves you play the notes indicated by the figures is up to you. In continuo playing manuals from the Baroque era, aimed at keyboard players, the students are taught to play four-part realisations. For examples of these you can study the chorals by J. S. Bach. Also, care should be taken that every voice, but especially the highest voice, has good voice leading; every voice must be a nice melody in itself. On a lute, continuous four-part playing with good voice-leading of the individual parts is often not possible, but we try what we can. Making a nice melody in the upper voice of our continuo realisation is not impossible, though, so we should aim at doing at least that. The most important rules in voice leading that are useful to us are to avoid parallel octaves and fifths in the outer voices, and to apply contrary motion wherever possible.

Avoiding parallel octaves and fifths

If the interval between the lowest and highest note in a chord is an octave (or two octaves), you cannot have an octave again between these outer voices in the next chord. The same holds true for fifths. This rule of forbidden parallel octaves and fifths is one of the strictest rules to obey.


Contrary motion

On a lute, with its moveable chord shapes, it is not always easy to avoid parallel octaves and fifths in the outer voices. A good trick is, when playing two chords that have the same shape on the fingerboard in succession, to play the highest note in the second chord one string lower if the bass goes up, and to play it on one string higher if the bass goes down. This is called contrary motion.


Avoid doubling the third

To play four-part harmonies with triads means we have to double a note of the chord. It is best to avoid doubling the third in a chord, especially when this third goes up a step to the root of the next chord. In practice this means we have to be especially careful with first inversions, so called 6-chords. Try not to double the lowest note of this chord, as it is the third in the triad. This is an extension of the rule that dissonant elements in a chord, notes that will be resolved in a consonant, should not be doubled. Being aware of this rule will soon breed good taste in this matter, for once your ears are opened to it, you will quickly appreciate the natural logic of it.

The size of the interval indicated by the figures is dependent on the key signature. For example, the figure 6 indicates one to play a sixth on the bass note. This sixth can be major or minor depending on context, see the next example, the sixth on the g is major, and the sixth on the a is minor, although both have the same figure.


All figures represent the interval to be played: the figure 2 requires the continuo player to play a second on the bass note, the figure 4 a fourth, etc. All figures can be followed, in older publications often preceded, by a flat or sharp to lower or raise the interval. A neutral sign can be used to cancel to flat or sharp. Lowering and raising must be done relative to the key signature. The examples will clarify this. As the third is understood to be played always, a flat or sharp without any number indicates a lowered or raised third. Likewise with a neutral sign. Compound figures are figures stacked upon each other. We must try to play all the intervals indicated, but not necessarily in the order as they are written.

Some figures indicate the linear movement of the parts in the continuo realisation. These are two or more figures above the same bass note. Here are the most common ones.


A horizontal line under a bass notes indicates that you can hold the chord you played on the note before. The words Tasto solo tell you to just play the bass, without any chords.

These rules are an abbreviation and simplification of the rules on continuo playing as written by for example J. S. Bach (1738) and his son C. Ph. E. Bach (1753). A good continuo player should know a lot more, but if even the rules given here are too much for you now, don’t despair, because I would like to repeat once more: just play the bass line, with the occasional chord above it, and you are playing continuo. A better understanding, as well as the ability to play more complicated chords, will come with practice.

Voice leading

Voice leading is the word used for the horizontal movements of the different parts of the continuo realisation. For us lute players, this is mostly about making a nice melody in the highest voice of our continuo parts. The only way to judge our melody, and how it interacts with the bass and the solo part, is listening to it. But there are a few tips that can help.
A good melody does not make great jumps, but goes stepwise. If you do make a jump, try to fill the gap stepwise in the other direction.
Example of a stepwise melody, filling the jumps:


One should try to apply contrary motion where possible. Contrary motion is the compositional device that when the bass goes up, de highest voice goes down, and vice versa. Not only does this sound good, it is also a good way to avoid parallel octaves and fifths.
Example of contrary motion:


A continuo player must not only try and apply contrary motion between bass and highest voice, but if possible also between his own highest notes and the solo voice when accompanying a single singer or instrumentalist. It will be obvious that this is often an impossible task, but nevertheless one we should try to accomplish. Let your ears be the judge, and develop good taste by listening carefully to others, and study written out continuo parts.

Where contrary motion is not possible, it can be nice to make the melody of our continuo realisation in parallel thirds or sixths, either parallel to the bass or to the solo voice. More than about three successive thirds or sixths are too much, however. Again, let your ears be the judge.
Example of parallel thirds in outer voices, followed by contrary motion:


Doubling the part of the soloist is not considered good continuo practise. Of course it is perfectly all-right to double the occasional note, but not extended parts of the melody.

If the soloist has the third in the chord, especially if the chord is a major chord, try to avoid that third as highest note in your chord. The third in a chord will often go up stepwise, if it is the third in a major chord it even has to go up to follow proper voice leading rules, which will make it unavoidable to double the soloist. If you develop an ear for this, it will be an easy rule to follow, as good taste cannot be suppressed.

These are too many rules to remember when improvising continuo. But these are rules of good taste, mostly, and good taste can be learned by studying good examples and by listening with these rules in mind. Read the rules again, once in a while, to refresh your memory.

Exercises in chord progressions

Now it is time to put all this theory into practice. A good way to start is to play common chord progressions in common keys. Here are two pages (pdf) with the chord progressions. The goal of the exercise is to play the bass, find as many chord shapes as you can and to invent as many melodies as you can. As with all exercises, you don’t have to do everything at once. So start with only playing the bass, then find the chords, and then play bass and chords at a slow but steady tempo. Next, try to invent melodies upon the bass, play these melodies with the bass and only at the last stage put bass, chords and melody together.

In the next lesson we will make our first practical steps with some real music.

David van Ooijen 2010

This lesson is part of a series that first appeared in Nostalgia, the news letter of the Lute & Early Guitar Society of Japan.