Neapolitan chords are a type of chord using extensively in classical-era music. In modern music, this chord is far less common, although I have heard it in a few Beatles songs and elsewhere.
This chord gives progressions a very classical and (in my opinion) cool sound, and in this lesson I'll be explaining how to construct and apply Neapolitan chords.
Before I start saying anything else about Neapolitan chords, I'm going to list some prerequisites for this lesson:
1) You should know some basic music theory. Know how to construct basic chords (major and minor) and your scales, scale degrees, and what chords are normally built off them. Essentially, if I were to ask you to play the basic chord built on the fifth degree of the C major scale, you would be able to figure out that I asked you to play G, and if I asked you to play a major chord that was built on the fifth degree of A minor, you would be able to figure out that I asked you to play E.
2) You should know the notes on the guitar fretboard, or at least be able to figure out what notes are where without an obnoxious amount of delay. If I ask you where E is on the D string, you should be able to figure out that E is on the 2nd and 14th frets of the D string.
3) You should be able to play some barre chords, not just open chords.
You MIGHT be able to get through this lesson without some of this stuff, but you should just learn the stuff. It'll help immensely in some many other ways.
Also, I may say things that sound very "textbook" and are hard to understand, but don't give up, read the next few sentences and chances are that I will explain what I mean.
Now that we got through that, let's get to the interesting stuff ;)
A Neapolitan chord ISN'T another type of chord, different from major, minor, diminished, or augmented, and it has nothing to do with ice cream (ha!). In short, what this chord IS, is a major chord built off of the flatted second degree of a major or minor scale. In case that doesn't make sense, let me explain in a little more detail:
Let's use A minor just because I feel like it and it's a common key.
To build a Neapolitan chord from this scale, you take the note on the second degree of the scale (so in this case, that note is B), flat it (so now it's Bb), and build a major chord off of it. So now we have the Bb major chord, consisting of the notes Bb, D, and F. One way to play it on guitar, in traditional guitar-chord style, is like this:
with the notes Bb, F, Bb, D, F, and Bb in order from the bottom string and moving up.
In my opinion, especially using a clean tone or acoustic guitar, playing the chord with the notes in order sounds better, so something like this:
with the notes Bb, D, F, Bb, and D. You could also put another Bb on the top string, 6th fret, but that adds some difficulty to the fingering.
Also, in the classical era, this chord was most often found in 1st inversion (playing the chord with the 3rd on the bottom instead of the root), hence the reason you will also see this chord called the Neapolitan sixth chord, and sometimes abbreviated N6. Sometimes the Neapolitan chord was found in 2nd inversion as well.
A side note: The concept of inversion is many times lost on guitar, so don't worry about this too much, but definitely look into inversions if you don't know what they are already.
This isn't something to live by, and it's not going to kill you to play the chord in root position rather than 1st inversion, so whatever you want to do as a guitarist is up to you, whether it be the two examples above or the many other ways to play a major chord on the guitar. That being said, here's one way to play a first inversion major chord that is very, very similar to the above example:
with the notes D, F, Bb, and D.
Make sure you remember that the Neapolitan chord is NOT a chord quality like major, minor, augmented, or diminished. A Neapolitan chord only exists when it is relative to a scale, because it is a major chord built off the flatted 2nd degree of a scale.
Now you're probably wondering how in the world one would use this chord in a progression. It's actually pretty easy!
The Neapolitan chord has a subdominant function. This means that it basically has the same function as a IV or ii chord in a major scale and as a iv or VI chord in a minor scale, and can therefore substitute for any of those chords. In most cases the Neapolitan chord is used in minor keys, but that's not at all saying that you can't use them in major keys too. The Neapolitan chord usually occurs only in a cadence (series of chords that make a resolution to the root chord); you can try it yourself as well, but a Neapolitan chord in a progression that repeats starts to sound... weird. The Neapolitan chord tends to sound best when it's used at the end of something, like a verse, a riff (that doesn't repeat, unless it's long enough). However, there are no strict rules about this in this day and age, so do whatever you want!
You can also use the Neapolitan chord to modulate (change) to a different key. If I write another lesson on Neapolitan chords I'll go more in depth on this.
Basically, you can substitute a Neapolitan chord for the chords built on the second and fourth degrees of a major scale and the fourth and sixth degrees of a minor scale
Lets say you have a i-iv-V progression in a minor key, which is fairly common and basic. I use major chord for the chord built on the fifth degree of the minor scale because it pulls to the ending root chord more than if I used the regular minor chord, and I'm sure there's some lesson here on UG that explains that concept.
We'll use A minor again and put an A minor chord again at the end to give this example some finality (remember that uppercase roman numerals mean major, and lowercase mean minor):
Which is Am, Dm, Dm again, E, and then Am again. I doubled the IV chord because, in my opinion, it sounds better this way.
This sounds pretty good and all, but also pretty typical. Now, let's put a Neapolitan chord in there and see how that changes things. The chord progression is now i-iv-N-V, where N is the Neapolitan chord, with an Am chord at the end again:
Which is Am, Dm, Bb, E, and Am, with Bb being the Neapolitan chord.
You hear the difference? Sounds pretty cool to my ears!
Here are some more sample progressions, both major and minor, and the same progressions with Neapolitan chords for you to play around with:
Try making up your own progressions and then using the Neapolitan chord to change it up!
1) The Neapolitan chord is not a whole new type of chord; It's quality is major, so you still only have to remember your basic major, minor, diminished, and augmented chords.
2) To build a Neapolitan chord, take the second degree of a scale, flatten it, and then build a major chord on that note.
3) Neapolitan chords have a subdominant function and usually substitute for IV and ii chords in a major key and iv and VI in a minor key
Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this lesson!