Figurato is a new specialist font for figured bass notation. It allows for easy input of multiple vertically stacked numbers and accidentals. It can be used in all major commercial desktop notation software, regardless of whether the program supports figured bass notation natively.
The font is available for free on GitHub. Incidentally, Philip Rothman has bundled Figurato with the latest update of the free Norfolk suite of music fonts for Sibelius, too (if you’ve already downloaded the latest Norfolk update, you don’t need to download Figurato separately).
Read on here if you’re interested in a quick outline of the functionality.
Of all the major notation packages, the two open source projects Musescore and Lilypond offer native support for figured bass. Sibelius supports it non-semantically through the Figured bass text style and a special font. Finale and Dorico do not (at least not yet). Understandably so, some of you might say, ’cause who on earth needs figured bass anymore? (Your thoughts exactly? Feel free to skip this post, no hard feelings, and see you around next time.)
Fair enough — most contemporary composers will hardly miss figured bass. But there’s a vibrant community of musicians that perform, study, research and publish baroque music; and for the purposes of music theory classes, even for quick harmonic sketches when composing tonal music those intriguing numbers have their uses as much today as they did 350 years ago. Come to think of it, if we count the absolute numbers there are probably more people today who can read and play figured bass than in the baroque era!
Now, it should be noted that the developers at Steinberg have already promised that Dorico will have a semantic figured bass feature at some point. There is, however, no clear picture as to when it will come.
Another specialist font: why?
All this is not to say that it’s currently impossible to create figured bass notation in these programs — quite the contrary. For instance, in Finale you can enter figured bass notation through the Lyrics tool via the Finale Numerics font, introduced in 2012. But it’s a laborious process and unless the engraver cares to diligently build and arrange the figures one at a time the results are likely to look a bit crude compared to hand-engraved editions of the 19th and 20th century – let alone the magnificent, almost gestural figures in Bach’s own handwriting!
As of now Dorico, Finale and Sibelius all offer several options to create figured bass indications: generic text objects, chord symbols, lyrics, playing techniques… Regardless of which route you choose you always face the challenge to correctly position the individual elements of your figures in relation to each other.
Several rows need to be aligned horizontally; accidentals in adjacent rows are likely to collide if you adjust the leading between the rows in such a way that it looks natural otherwise; and then there are all those slashed and dashed and ticked and otherwise imaginatively modified numbers that indicate alterations… you’ll need a special font for those, right? And wouldn’t it be nice if that font took care of all the positioning hassle too?
How it works
This is where the Figurato font comes in. It contains all (and only) the symbols that are needed for figured bass: numbers, accidentals, dashes, and parentheses and brackets. Modified numbers are accessible as ligatures, the same goes for italic numbers. As figured bass indications are usually set quite small, the contours of all characters have been optimized for good legibility at small print size.
The neat thing about Figurato is something else, though: the font makes extensive and somewhat uncommon use of OpenType positioning features to arrange the elements of figured bass indications automatically. In short: you don’t need to worry about getting numbers and accidentals positioned correctly. Input your figures from top to bottom just like you would picture them in your mind – the rows are detected automatically.
When you add parentheses to your figures, some smart substitutions take place to make sure that the characters are sized and placed correctly. You can put single accidentals, a complete row or even multiple rows in parentheses or brackets.
Lastly, Figurato contains voluminous kerning tables for all sorts of character combinations, so collisions are practically precluded. This affects mostly accidentals in adjacent rows. Some care has been given to parentheses around accidentals or altered numbers too.
If you’d like to try out Figurato for yourself, please refer to the documentation on GitHub for more detailed instructions. Don’t worry, it’s mostly straightforward.
Here comes the fine print: Figurato should work in any modern environment that supports OpenType layout features. Namely the LIGA (ligatures), CALT (contextual alternates) and KERN (kerning) features are needed to parse the input strings and lay them out as sensible figures. The OpenType layout technology was built to deal with one-dimensional plain text though, and figured bass is quite a different beast. Therefore, Figurato uses this technology in a rather unusual way and although it does work in pretty much every software it has been tested with, it can’t be garanteed to work properly with every individual layout engine out there. (I seriously envy the Dorico developers who will have much more powerful tools at their disposal when they tackle figured bass!)
What’s most relevant for us: Figurato works fine with Dorico, Finale and Sibelius. Since it was developed specifically with Dorico’s lyrics popover in mind, this is currently the best environment to put it to quick and easy use, but it’s equally possible to use the font with any other text-oriented feature in any of these programs. Once again, specific instructions may be found on GitHub.
There was a bug in the underlying Qt framework in Dorico 2 on Mac that prevented vertical shifting of characters in any OpenType font from working properly (the Windows version was not affected). This was fixed in Dorico 3. Mac users still on Dorico 2 need to use FiguratoMac, another version of Figurato that circumvents the bug at the cost of slightly limited functionality — a workaround for the workaround to work, so to speak.
There is no need to use FiguratoMac with Sibelius (greater than 2018.11), Finale, or Dorico 3.
I am pretty fluent at reading and playing figured bass, but I would never call myself an expert. That’s why I’m greatly indebted to a few real experts: Ben Byram-Wigfield, chief editor at Ancient Groove Music, and cembalist and conductor Lars Ulrik Mortensen have both significantly helped shaping this project with their advice. Abraham Lee from Music Type Foundry gave valuable feedback about glyph design and helped me getting started with Python’s fontforge module.
And last but not least our own Philip Rothman helped testing the font in Sibelius, gave encouraging feedback and wrote the Sibelius-specific part of the documentation. He was even enthusiastic enough to bundle Figurato with his own Norfolk suite of free music fonts for Sibelius! Many thanks to all of you!
I enjoyed creating this curious specimen of a font! And I hope it will be useful for some of you. Do let me know about any issues you encounter! And if you find that the font saves you time with your commercial projects, I’d be grateful for a small donation. Figuring out that positioning logic took a fair amount of coffee!