In music theory, a Neapolitan chord (or simply a "Neapolitan") is a major chord built on the lowered (flatted) second (supertonic) scale degree. In Schenkerian analysis, it is known as a Phrygian II, since in minor scales the chord is built on the notes of the corresponding Phrygian mode.
Although it is sometimes indicated by an "N" rather than a "♭II", some analysts prefer the latter because it indicates the relation of this chord to the supertonic. The Neapolitan chord does not fall into the categories of mixture or tonicization. Moreover, even Schenkerians like Carl Schachter do not consider this chord as a sign for a shift to the Phrygian mode. Therefore, like the augmented sixth chords it should be assigned to a separate category of chromatic alteration.
The Neapolitan most commonly occurs in first inversion so that it is notated either as ♭II6 or N6 and normally referred to as a Neapolitan sixth chord. In C major or C minor, for example, a Neapolitan sixth chord in first inversion contains an interval of a minor sixth between F and D♭.
Origin of the name
- The chord is called "Neapolitan" because it is associated with the Neapolitan School, which included Alessandro Scarlatti, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Giovanni Paisiello, Domenico Cimarosa, and other important 18th-century composers of Italian opera. But it seems already to have been an established, if infrequent, harmonic practice by the end of the 17th century, used by Giacomo Carissimi, Arcangelo Corelli, and Henry Purcell. It was also a favorite idiom among composers in the Classical period, especially Ludwig van Beethoven, who extended its use in root-position and second-inversion chords also.
- It is called a "sixth" because the interval between the bass note and the root of the chord is a minor sixth. For example, in the key of C major or C minor the chord consists of D♭ (the root note), F (the third of the triad), and A♭ (the fifth of the triad) – with the F in the bass, to make it a ♭II6 or N6 rather than a root-position ♭II. The interval of a minor sixth is between F and D♭.
In tonal harmony, the function of the Neapolitan chord is to prepare the dominant, substituting for the IV or ii (particularly ii6) chord. For example, it often precedes an authentic cadence, where it functions as a subdominant (IV). In such circumstances, the Neapolitan sixth is a chromatic alteration of the subdominant, and it has an immediately recognizable and poignant sound.
A minor Neapolitan chord is also infrequently encountered (in C major or minor, a D♭ minor chord); it has the same function as the ordinary major Neapolitan chord. For example, in C major, the IV (subdominant) triad in root position contains the notes F, A, and C. By lowering the A by a semitone to A♭ and raising the C to D♭, the Neapolitan sixth chord F–A♭–D♭ is formed.
In C minor, the resemblance between the subdominant (F–A♭–C) and the Neapolitan (F–A♭–D♭) is even stronger since only one note differs by a half-step. (The Neapolitan is also only a half-step away from the diminished supertonic triad in minor in first inversion, F–A♭–D, and thus lies chromatically between the two primary subdominant function chords.)
The Neapolitan sixth chord is particularly common in minor keys. As a simple alteration of the subdominant triad (iv) of the minor mode, it provides contrast as a major chord compared to the minor subdominant or the diminished supertonic triad.
Further harmonic contexts
A common use of the Neapolitan chord is in tonicizations and modulations to different keys. It is the most common means of modulating down a semitone, which is usually done by using the I chord in a major key as a Neapolitan chord (or a flatted major supertonic chord in the new key, a semitone below the original).
Occasionally, a minor seventh or augmented sixth is added to the Neapolitan chord, which turns it into a potential secondary dominant that can allow tonicization or modulation to the ♭V/♯IV key area relative to the primary tonic. Whether the added note were notated as a minor seventh or augmented sixth largely depends on how the chord resolves. For example, in C major or C minor, the Neapolitan chord with an augmented sixth (B♮ added to D♭ major chord) very likely resolves in C major or minor, or possibly into some other closely related key such as F minor.
However, if the extra note is considered an added seventh (C♭), this is the best notation if the music is to lead into G♭ major or minor. If the composer chose to lead into F♯ major or minor, very likely the Neapolitan chord would be notated enharmonically based on C♯ (for example: C♯–E♯–G♯–B), although composers vary in their practice on such enharmonic niceties.
Another such use of the Neapolitan is along with the German augmented sixth chord, which can serve as a pivot chord to tonicize the Neapolitan as a tonic (
Because of its close relationship to the subdominant, the Neapolitan sixth resolves to the dominant using similar voice-leading. In the present example of a C major/minor tonic, the D♭ generally moves down by two steps to the leading tone B♮ (creating the expressive melodic interval of a diminished third, one of the few places this interval is accepted in traditional voice-leading), while the F in the bass moves up by step to the dominant root G. The fifth of the chord (A♭) usually resolves down a semitone to G as well. In four-part harmony, the bass note F is generally doubled, and this doubled F either resolves down to D or remains as the seventh F of the G-major dominant seventh chord. In summary, the conventional resolution is for all upper voices to move down against a rising bass.
Care must be taken to avoid consecutive fifths when moving from the Neapolitan to the cadential 6
4. The simplest solution is to avoid placing the fifth of the chord in the soprano voice. If the root or (doubled) third is in the soprano voice, all upper parts simply resolve down by step while the bass rises. According to some theorists, however, such an unusual consecutive fifth (with both parts descending a semitone) is allowable in chromatic harmony, so long as it does not involve the bass voice. (The same allowance is often made more explicitly for the German augmented sixth, except in that case it may involve the bass – or must, if the chord is in its usual root position.)
The ♭II chord is sometimes used in root position (in which case there may be even more concessions regarding consecutive fifths, similar to those just discussed). The use of a root position Neapolitan chord may be appealing to composers who wish for the chord to resolve outwards to the dominant in first inversion; the flatted supertonic moves to the leading tone (in C major, D♭ to B) and the flatted submediant may move down to the dominant or up to the leading tone (A♭ to either G or B).
An example of a flatted major supertonic chord occurs in the second to last bar of Chopin's Prelude in C minor, Op. 28, No. 20. In very rare cases, the chord occurs in second inversion; for example, in Handel's Messiah, in the aria "Rejoice greatly".
In classical music
From the early 17th century onwards, composers became aware of the expressive power of the Neapolitan chord, especially to convey moments of intense feeling.
In his oratorio Jephte, Giacomo Carissimi portrays the grief-stricken tears ("lachrimate") of Jephtha’s daughter and her companions at the prospect of her brutal fate. According to Richard Taruskin, "The daughter’s lament… makes especially affective use of the ‘Phrygian’ lowered second degree at cadences, producing what would later be called the Neapolitan (or ‘Neapolitan sixth) harmony." (B♭ in the key of A minor).
In his opera King Arthur, Henry Purcell features the chord (D♭ in the key of C minor) among a range of "daring chromatic harmonies" and "strange sliding semitones" to evoke the sensation of intense cold in Act 3 Scene 2, when the spirit of Winter, the awe-inspiring "Cold Genius" is aroused from its slumbers.
In contrast to Purcell, the opening movement of "Summer" from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, "a four-note descent transformed by Neapolitan-sixth harmony" enhances the sensation of weariness and languor under the hot sun (A♭ in the key of G minor). As the sonnet accompanying the music puts it:
Sotto dura Staggion dal Sole accesa
Langue l' huom, langue 'l gregge, ed arde il Pino;
(Under a hard season, fired up by the sun
Languishes man, languishes the flock and burns the pine.)
Paul Everett describes the above passage as "a set of disarmingly 'slow' gestures, metrically dislocated, that must represent the lethargy of the anxious man as much as the oppressive heat of an airless day."
In J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion, No. 19, the episode conveying Christ’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane, the Neapolitan chord (G♭ in the key of F minor) is used on the word "Plagen" (torments) in the chorale harmonization sung by the chorus:
According to John Eliot Gardiner, "The answering soft-voiced chorus… imbues [the music] with a mysterious quality, almost as though a muted drama is taking place at a distance from the main action – Christ’s ‘Agony in the Garden’ and his acceptance of his role as Saviour."
The Neapolitan chord was a favourite idiom among composers in the Classical period. In his Sonata in C minor, "a masterpiece of tragic power," Haydn uses the chord (D♭ in the key of C minor) as he brings the opening statement of his first subject to a close:
Wilfrid Mellers sees the apparent tranquillity of these bars as "deceptive, since in bar 3 the bass’s F sharp is harmonized not as a subdominant but, with the quaver triplet’s D flattened as a first inversion of the Neapolitan chord of D major. The implied progression from D natural to the cadential B sharp delivers a small stab to the nervous system."
Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, Op. 57 uses the Neapolitan chord on a broader harmonic canvas. Both the first and last movements of the sonata open with a phrase repeated a semitone higher (G♭ in the key of F minor).
A powerful example from Schubert comes in his single movement Quartett-Satz (1820). The opening "has a dramatic intensity… which is all the more powerful because it begins quietly." The passage culminates in a Neapolitan chord (D♭ in the key of C minor):
According to Roger Scruton, "It is as though a spirit had arisen out of the turbulent clouds and suddenly burst forth into the light – the clouds formed from the key of C minor, the spirit itself, released at last, being in the negation of C minor, namely D flat major." Scruton sees the "semitone conflict" that recurs in different keys as the movement progresses as a unifying feature that has "penetrated the whole structure of the piece."
In the fourth scene of Richard Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold, the earth Goddess Erda prophesies the impending doom of the Gods. Wagner’s orchestration here juxtaposes two significant dramatic leitmotifs, the one ascending to represent Erda and the other, "a descending variant of Erda's motive played over a chord of the Neapolitan sixth" with the intention of conveying their ultimate downfall to ominous and chilling effect. (D in the key of C♯ minor):
In popular music
- Alexander Rybak's and Paula Seling's "I'll Show You"
- The Beatles' "Do You Want to Know a Secret"
- The Beatles' "Because"
- Britney Spears' "Womanizer"
- Jacques Brel's "Ne me quitte pas" (later adapted into English as "If You Go Away" and covered by various artists)
- Lana Del Rey's "Video Games"
- Stefani Germanotta and Anton Zaslavski's "G.U.Y", recorded by Lady Gaga (Neapolitan major seventh in bar 3)
- Livin' Joy's "Don't Stop Movin'"
- Robin Thicke's "Fall Again"
- The Rolling Stones' "Mother's Little Helper"
- In Brazilian popular music as in Noel Rosa's Último desejo and in several Chico Buarque's songs
- The Legend of Zelda's opening theme music
- In the Indiana Jones theme music, the Neapolitan chord can be heard in the second bar of the consequent phrase.
- Oswald Jonas (1982). Introduction to the Theory of Heinrich Schenker (1934: Das Wesen des musikalischen Kunstwerks: Eine Einführung in Die Lehre Heinrich Schenkers), Translated by John Rothgeb.: p.29n29. ISBN 0-582-28227-6.
- Clendinning, Jane Piper (2010). The Musician's Guide to Theory and Analysis. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0393930815.
- Aldwell, Edward; Schachter, Carl (2003). Harmony and Voice Leading (3rd ed.). Australia, United States: Thomson/Schirmer. pp. 490–491. ISBN 0-15-506242-5. OCLC 50654542.
- Bartlette, Christopher, and Steven G. Laitz (2010). Graduate Review of Tonal Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, pg 184. ISBN 978-0-19-537698-2
- William Drabkin. "Neapolitan sixth chord". In Deane L. Root (ed.). Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 8 June 2007. (subscription required)
- Christ, William (1973), Materials and Structure of Music, 2 (2nd ed.), Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, pp. 146–7, ISBN 0-13-560342-0, OCLC 257117 LCC MT6 M347 1972
- Taruskin, Richard. (2010, p.74) The Oxford History of Western Music: Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Oxford University Press.
- Holman, P. (1994, p.205), Henry Purcell, Oxford University Press.
- Westrup, J. (1937, p.134) Purcell, Oxford University Press
- Everett, P. (1996, p.83) Vivaldi: The Four Seasons and other Concertos. Cambridge University Press.
- Everett, P. (1996, p.83) Vivaldi: The Four Seasons and other Concertos. Cambridge University Press.
- Gardiner, John Eliot (2013, p.414) Music in the Castle of Heaven, a Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach. London, Allen Lane.
- Hughes, R. (1962, p.140) Haydn. London, Dent.
- Mellers, W. (1983, p.77) Beethoven and the Voice of God. London, Faber.
- Mellers, Wilfrid. (1983, p.102) Beethoven and the Voice of God. London, Faber.
- Drabkin, William. "Neapolitan sixth chord". In Deane L. Root. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 8 June 2007. (subscription required)
- Westrup, J. (1969, p.19) Schubert Chamber Music. London, BBC
- Scruton, R. (2018, p.131) Music as an Art. London, Bloomsbury Continuum
- Scruton, R. (2018, p.133) Music as an Art. London, Bloomsbury Continuum
- Von Westernhagen, C. (1976, p.56) The Forging of the "Ring". Cambridge University Press.
- Donington, R. (1963, p.278) Wagner’s Ring and its Symbols. London, Faber.
- Blatter, Alfred (2012). Revisiting Music Theory: A Guide to the Practice
- Walter Everett. The Beatles as Musicians:Revolver Through the Anthology. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. p. 310. Retrieved 22 March 2015.
- Mellers, W. (1973, p.117) Twilight of the Gods: the Beatles in Retrospect London, Faber.
- "Womanizer by Britney Spears: Digital Sheet Music". musicnotes.com. Retrieved 25 June 2019.
- Rod McKuen, letter to Bassey reproduced in CD liner notes, BGO CD693
- "Lana Del Rey Video Games – Digital Sheet Music". Musicnotes.com. EMI Music Publishing.
- "G.U.Y. by Lady Gaga: Digital Sheet Music". musicnotes.com. Retrieved 15 March 2015.
- Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.
- Halstead, Craig; Cadman, Chris (2007). Michael Jackson: For The Record. Bedfordshire: Authors OnLine Ltd. p. 107. ISBN 0-7552-0267-8.
- Stephenson, Ken (2002). What to Listen for in Rock: A Stylistic Analysis, p.90. ISBN 978-0-300-09239-4.
- Freitas, Sérgio Paulo Ribeiro de (December 2014). Memórias e histórias do acorde napolitano e de suas funções em certas canções da música popular no Brasil [Memories and stories of the neapolitan chord and its functions in songs of popular music in Brazil] (PDF) (in Portuguese). Scientific Electronic Library Online. pp. 41, 45–49 of 55. Retrieved 26 April 2016.
- "Legend of Zelda Main Theme by Nintendo". TheoryTab. Retrieved 11 May 2016.
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