What is a Neapolitan Chord and How Can I Use It?

What is a Neapolitan Chord and How Can I Use It?

You may have heard of a Neapolitan chord and wondered what it was. Is it a special kind of triad, or a seventh chord?

What does it sound like?

Is it related to the ice cream flavor? (Sadly, it is not).

If you’re wondering any of the above, then read on to learn more about this interesting and colorful chord.

What Is It?

A Neapolitan is a major triad built on the lowered second degree of a scale.

So, if I’m playing a piece in the key of C major, I would find the second scale degree (in this case, D) and lower it by a half step. That would be Db.

Now I need to build a major triad on top of Db, which would be Db, F, and Ab. So the Neapolitan chord in C major is Db, F, and Ab.

Let’s try another example. Suppose I am playing in F minor. The second scale degree of F minor is G, and lowering it by a half step would give me Gb.

If I build a major triad on Gb, I will end up with Gb, Bb, and Db, i.e., the Neapolitan chord in F minor.

If you’re wondering why it’s called a “Neapolitan”, the simple answer is that the chord seems to have originated with Baroque-era opera composers from the Italian city of Naples. The more you know…

How Is It Used?

Now you know how to build a Neapolitan chord, but how and where do you use it?

The first important thing to know is that Neapolitan chords are most often found in first inversion (that is, the third of the chord is in the bass).

These first-inversion Neapolitan chords are called Neapolitan sixth chords. In lead-sheets they appear as bII6 or, more commonly, N6.

They are most often found in minor keys, but they can be used in major keys as well.

Neapolitan sixth chords usually function as predominants. That means they come right before the dominant chord, which is another name for the V or V7 chord.

Going back to our C major example, the progression might look like this: N6 chord (F, Ab, Db), V7 chord (G, B, D, F), and I chord (C, E, G).

In F minor, we might have an N6 chord (Bb, Db, Gb), then a V chord (C, E, G), followed by a i chord (F, Ab, C).

If you want to add a Neapolitan chord where there isn’t one already, look for a place in the piece where a ii6 or IV chord is being used as a predominant. In other words, is there a first-inversion ii chord or a IV chord that comes right before a V or V7 chord?

Instead of playing the ii6 or IV chord as written, try substituting the N6.

So in C major, you would play F, Ab, and Db (the N6) instead of F, A, and D (the ii6 chord). You would then play the V and I chords as written.

Notice how much more interesting the progression becomes by changing just one chord!

Famous Example

If you’re wondering where to find examples of the Neapolitan chord in action, take a look at this video of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (this piece starts out very quietly, so you might want to turn up your volume):

Look at the last half of the third measure. Do you see the F# octave in the bass line and the A, D natural, and F# in the right hand? Guess what that is?

Yep, it’s a Neapolitan sixth chord!

It leads to the V7 chord in the very next measure, which makes it a predominant chord.

Summing It All Up

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this post, so I’ll summarize it here.

Neapolitan Chord

A major triad built on the lowered second degree of a scale.

Neapolitan Sixth Chord

A first inversion Neapolitan chord, sometimes written as N6.

First Inversion

The third of the chord is in the bass.

Dominant Chord

The V or V7 chord in any given key.

Predominant Chord

The chord that comes right before the V or V7 chord.

Bottom Line

Neapolitan chords are most frequently found in minor keys but can be used in major keys, they are usually in first inversion, and they are often used as predominant chords.

And that’s the scoop on the Neapolitan chord (sorry, I had to).

Do you ever substitute it as a predominant chord in your playing? Do you know of any other pieces that use it? Let us know in the comments!

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