Neapolitan chords perform the harmonic function of a predominant chord and lead you to the dominant chord. They can also be used as pivot chords to modulate to closely related or distant major or minor keys.
This article will provide you with information about the music theory related to Neapolitan chords, their spellings, inversions, examples, their harmonic functions, tonicizations, voice leading, use in modulations, etc.
Read the complete article to know all about the Neapolitan chords!
What is A Neapolitan or Neapolitan Sixth Chord
A Neapolitan chord is built on the flatted or lowered second-scale degree with the major sonority. As you know, the second degrees in major and minor scales produce an ii chord (minor) and iio chord (diminished), respectively.
The second scale degrees in these scales are known as the supertonic, and chords built on these scale degrees have the predominant function as per classical music theory.
Origin of the Name
The chord derived its name Neapolitan from the Neapolitan school, where famous composers like Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Paisiello, and others, related to the Italian Opera made its frequent use. The chord was already known and infrequently used by other composers like Purcell and Corelli. But the above Italian composers gave it a prominent place in their music, hence the name.
Neapolitan has been used by Beethoven in his Moonlight Sonata, Op. 27 No. 2, and also in Appassionata Sonata, Op. 57. Franz Schubert used them in Quartett-Satz (1820).
Neapolitan or Flat II Chord Music Theory & Spelling
Theoretically, Neapolitan chords are major chords built on the b2 scale degrees and are often referred to as the bII chords. They are sometimes simply called Neapolitan and denoted by a capital N.
However, the description bII is considered a better representation by most theorists as it clearly indicates the relation of the chord to the supertonic.
Unlike bIII, bVI, and bVII, the Neapolitan major chord does not function as a borrowed chord or a mode mixture. It, however, has a chromatic alteration like the augmented 6th chords.
While they are built on both major and minor keys, the use of a minor key is more prevalent.
The Neapolitans, on a minor scale, are built on the notes of the Phrygian mode. In such cases, they are often referred to as the Phrygian II chords. Consider C minor as an example. The iio diminished chord has notes [D, F, Ab]. The bII chord will carry the notes [Db, F, Ab], which are not part of the Aeolian mode.
However, the Phrygian mode has the scale formula [1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7]. Hence the notes of C Phrygian are [C Db Eb F G Ab Bb]. A chord built on the second degree of the Phrygian mode has notes [Db F Ab], which are the same as that of bII.
In a C major scale, the ii chord is D minor with the notes [D F A]. The bII chromatic harmony requires the notes [Db F Ab] for it to be a major triad.
Observe that these notes are the same as in the minor key but require lowering of the 5th note Ab from A in addition. Hence in a major mode, you require two alterations instead of one in a minor mode, resulting in the chord formula [b2, 4, b6]. No surprise why Neapolitan is more common in the minor modes.
Inversions of Neapolitan or Neapolitan Sixth Chords
Neapolitan is used more frequently in its first inversion in classical music. The first inversion of N in the above example has the notes [F Ab Db]. The interval between the F and Db is a minor sixth.
This gives the name of the Neapolitan Sixth to the first inversion of N, commonly referred to as the N6 or bII6 chord. Recall that 6 is also used in the figured bass notation of any basic triad in its first inversion.
The nomenclature of Neapolitan sixth is only used in classical music. In fact, other forms of music mainly use the Neapolitan only in its root position.
The second inversion of the Neapolitan is never used. Hence it is not discussed in the article.
Neapolitan Chord Examples In Major Or Minor Scale
We touched upon one example each from the major and minor modes to highlight the related concepts of music theory. Let us consider a few more examples.
Consider E natural minor scale [E, F#, G, A, B, C, D]. The b2 degree of the scale will have note F lowered from the second degree F#. The bII chord is F major chord with notes [F A C], which is your N chord.
For the next example, consider E major scale with notes [E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#]. The bII chord will have notes [F, A, C], the same as in the previous example, with the sixth also lowered as per the chord formula [b2, 4, b6].
Harmonic Functions of the Neapolitan Chord
In this section, you can see the harmonic functions of the Neapolitan and understand how to use them in your music. In a minor scale, the change in the chord’s quality from diminished to major stabilizes it due to eliminating the tritone interval.
In tonal harmony, the Neapolitan usually functions as a pre-dominant chord that leads and resolves to some form of the dominant function or V chord in an authentic cadence. So, you can see its frequent movement directly to V or V7. It is usually substituted for the IV, ii, or ii6 chords and acts as a subdominant triad.
Consider the notes of the N6 chord [F Ab Db] in the example from the C major key above. Also, consider the IV chord in the scale, F major, with notes F, A, and C. The N6 chord can be considered to be formed by the chromatic alteration by raising the C to Db and lowering the A to Ab. Hence you can consider the Neopolitan sixth to be a chromatic alteration of the subdominant chord.
In a minor key, the relation is even stronger. Consider the iv chord with notes [F Ab C]. Only one alteration of half step from C to Db is required.
Other uses of the Neapolitan chords include:
- Modulations and tonicizations to different keys.
- Adding a minor seventh or the augmented 6th note turns it into a secondary dominant to tonicize the bV/#4 keys relative to the tonic chord.
- Use it along with the German Aug6 chords to tonicize it.
You can see all the above harmonic functions in detail in the sections below with examples.
Neapolitan chord progressions
You can use N in any standard circle of the fifths chord progression, like
[i, iv, iio6] – N6 – [I6/4, V],
where either of the i, iv or iio6 can be used before N6, leading to an I6/4, the V, or the V7 chord directly.
Consider a chord progression, i – VI – iio6 – V – i. You can insert the Neapolitan sixth chord in between iio6 and the V chord. There can be an iv chord in place of iio6 as well. In the E minor key, this will mean
Em – C – F#o/A – F/A – B – Em
To spice up your chord progression by tonicizing the N6 or prolonging it, you can use a secondary dominant of N6 before it. This will result in the progression like
i – VI – iio6 – [V4/2/N6] – N6 – V – i, or
You may even consider adding a secondary leading tone function if you want.
Modulation using the Neapolitan Chords
To understand how you can modulate using the Neapolitan chords, consider the example of the E minor key with the diatonic chords – Em, F#o, G, Am, B, C, D#o. These are considering the raised 7th in the minor scale.
Using a Neapolitan 6th chord as a pivot chord in modulation
The Neapolitan chord in this scale will be F major instead of the (diminished ii) F#o. The F major chord features in the F major scale, Bb major scale, and C major scale as a major triad. So you can modulate to F, Bb, or C as the new key using this Neapolitan chord. Here the F major chord functions as a pivot chord to modulate.
You can use a progression like i – iv – V – i – N6 in e minor and shift to V6 – I – ii6 – I6/4 – V – I in Bb major scale.
You can even use the N6 chord in the new key to carrying out the modulation.
What you saw was modulation to a distant key. You can also modulate to a closely related key using the N chord. A good example is from a major key I to minor key iii. Suppose you are in an E major (I) key. You can modulate to G# (iii chord in E major) minor using the A minor (IV) chord as the pivot. Note that Am is the Neapolitan chord for the new scale G#.
Tonicizing the Neapolitan
As the bII is a major triad built with b2 as the root note, it can be tonicized by using the secondary dominant, as shown in the section on Neapolitan progressions. Consider the E minor key, as shown in the example below.
In E minor, the iv chord is Am [A C E], so its first inversion iv6 is [C E A]. It leads to V4/2/N, which is the third inversion of the secondary dominant of the Neapolitan.
The Neapolitan is F [F A C]; hence N6 is comprised of [A C F] notes. The secondary dominant of F is the C chord. We cannot use a secondary dominant triad here because it is the VI chord in the key, so we have to use a 7th chord, C7. It is better to select C4/2 [Bb C E G] for better voice leading.
Voice Leading of Neapolitan Chords
The Neapolitan may be directly led to V or V7, or you can use I6/4 in between. As you know, the N chord has notes [b2, 4, b6], so N6 is composed of [4, b6, b2]. You may follow the following rules for doubling.
The b6 is a chromatic note in the major keys, and b2 is a chromatic note in both keys. You should not double the chromatic notes. Hence the fourth degree is the only non-chromatic note in a major key. It is also a third of the N and the bass note of the N6 and should be doubled in four-part writing.
Only in the rare circumstances when you are tonicizing the Neapolitan may you go in for doubling the root.
How it is used and resolves
Consider first the case of the resolution of the Neapolitan chord directly to the V chord. You need to know a few things in this regard.
- You should place the b2 note in the Soprano or the Alto voice.
- The b2 note will always resolve down to the leading tone of the V chord. The leading tone will be at an interval of a diminished third below the b2. Normally it is suggested to avoid the diminished or augmented intervals in voice leading. But it is unavoidable in the case of N chords.
- There is also a scale degree 2 note in the V chord [5 7 2], but do not take the b2 up to it. It has to resolve to the leading tone 7 in all circumstances.
- Note that if you had the Neapolitan in the root position, you have to leap up by a tritone to the root of the V chord.
- The diagram below shows the voice leading in the progression, i – N6 – V – i, in the key of E minor.
let us now add the i6/4 in between N6 and V and see the improvement in the voice leading. Also, you can start from i6 instead of i in the progression. So let us see the voice leading in the progression i6 – N6 – i6/4 – V – i in the diagram below.
We hope that you have gathered enough information about the Neapolitan chords and are ready to use them in your music. Practice and repetitions are necessary to acquire new skills and knowledge. If you want any further details or clarifications on the topic, write to us in the comments below.