Neapolitan Chords

Construction and application of Neapolitan chords to progressions, specifically on guitar.

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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 ;) Construction: 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:
e-----6---
B-----6---
G-----7---
D-----8---
A-----8---
E-----6---
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:
e----------
B-----3----
G-----3----
D-----3----
A-----5----
E-----6----
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:
e---------
B-----3---
G-----3---
D-----3---
A-----5---
E---------
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. Application: 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 Examples: 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):
e-----0----1----1----0----0---
B-----1----3----3----0----1---
G-----2----2----2----1----2---
D-----2----0----0----2----2---
A-----0--------------2--------
E--------------------0--------
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:
e-----0----1---------0----0---
B-----1----3----3----0----1---
G-----2----2----3----1----2---
D-----2----0----3----2----2---
A-----0---------5----2--------
E---------------6----0--------
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: IV-V-I N-V-I iv-V-i N-V-i iv-v-i N-v-i ii-V-I N-V-I Try making up your own progressions and then using the Neapolitan chord to change it up! Summary: 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!

40 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    roco95
    Chi ha avut' ha avut' ha avut', chi ha dat' ha dat' ha dat', scurdammoce 'o passato, simm' 'e Napule, pais! I mean, Neapolitan chords are from Naples, right? ... right? ...
    Carl_Berg
    "E is on the 2nd and 12th frets of the D string" Don't you mean 2nd and 14th?
    duck1992
    Carl_Berg wrote: "E is on the 2nd and 12th frets of the D string" Don't you mean 2nd and 14th?
    haha... yeah I did mean that. Looks like I didn't proofread it as well as I thought
    Ma-hog!
    NemX162 wrote: Little mistake, you said there is an E on the 12th fret D string. You meant the 14th.
    and the 26th fret too! :waldo:
    NemX162
    Little mistake, you said there is an E on the 12th fret D string. You meant the 14th.
    g0dd4rd
    wow, new inspiration (even though i think am using some of this less common stuff). thanks
    fagelamusgtr
    never heard of it. played through the examples and it sounds pretty interesting. thanks dude
    mark3777
    quick question, what are degrees exactly? From reading this lesson, it seems a degree is the distance between two tones ex(A to B to C to D to E) E being the 5th degree and A is the 1st degree. Am I right?
    duck1992
    mark3777 wrote: quick question, what are degrees exactly? From reading this lesson, it seems a degree is the distance between two tones ex(A to B to C to D to E) E being the 5th degree and A is the 1st degree. Am I right?
    the distance between two tones is called an interval, strictly speaking, but i think i know what you mean, because the example you used is correct. A degree pertains to which note in a series of notes (aka a scale), so the 5th degree of a scale basically means "the 5th note in a series of notes" hope that helped!
    duck1992
    mark3777 wrote: cool, thanks duck that helped. I have heard people refer to degrees in a few other lessons, but I didn't know what they were talking about.
    no problem! glad i could help
    mark3777
    cool, thanks duck that helped. I have heard people refer to degrees in a few other lessons, but I didn't know what they were talking about.
    duck1992
    gwitersnamps wrote: 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. VI is never predominant, VI is always a tonic level substitution for I. Also, the word you were looking for is PREdominant, not subdominant. Subdominant is a chord, not a function. PREdominant chords are IV and ii in minor and iv and ii(dim) in minor. Otherwise, a good introduction to some oft-overlooked classical theory.
    yeahh... you're right. i guess ididnt put much thought into that. my thought process was that since in major the subdominant chords are IV and ii, that means that since those are the same chords as iv and VI in minor that they must have the same predominant function, which is wrong. Thanks for the correction on this and on differentiating between predominant and subdominant!
    duck1992
    ripoffhitman wrote: A great addition to my bag of tricks. Thank you for posting this
    no problem!
    redhavok
    i think this is wrong. i was taught that a chord like this is based of its parallel minor/major scale and borrowing chords for each other eg for this lesson the amin wuld be the same and so wuld the Bbmajor but instead of refering to it as Im and N they become vi and bVII. this is because in the current key(cmaj)has vi minor(the amin) and a vii0 (bdim), this is because the diatonic chords in a major scale are I ii ii IV V vi vii0 but the seventh diatonic chord of the c MINOR scale is Bbmajor(a bVII chord, because the diatonic chords in a minor scale are Im ii0 bIII vi v bVI bVII) which is being borrowed in this example. theoretically it makes far more sense. this also helps when approaching a song modally, if you so choose, or adding extensions to the chord such as a #11 for all you lydian fiends out there..you know who you are *gives vai the evil eye, also apologises to yngwie for using his song title*
    duck1992
    redhavok wrote: i think this is wrong. i was taught that a chord like this is based of its parallel minor/major scale and borrowing chords for each other eg for this lesson the amin wuld be the same and so wuld the Bbmajor but instead of refering to it as Im and N they become vi and bVII. this is because in the current key(cmaj)has vi minor(the amin) and a vii0 (bdim), this is because the diatonic chords in a major scale are I ii ii IV V vi vii0 but the seventh diatonic chord of the c MINOR scale is Bbmajor(a bVII chord, because the diatonic chords in a minor scale are Im ii0 bIII vi v bVI bVII) which is being borrowed in this example. theoretically it makes far more sense. this also helps when approaching a song modally, if you so choose, or adding extensions to the chord such as a #11 for all you lydian fiends out there..you know who you are *gives vai the evil eye, also apologises to yngwie for using his song title*
    The key where Bbmaj eventually resolved to Am isn't Cmaj, it's Am, because this is in a minor key, and resolves to Am. And since Am is the actual key, the Neapolitan chord couldnt be an alternate name for bVII, and instead is a borrowed chord from the parallel phrygian mode, giving the bII-V-i cadence.
    duck1992
    My previous post is worded poorly, i think... And i can't delete or edit it i guess, so here: redhavok, the key was never Cmaj in my examples (it was always Am, because everything was a cadence resolving to Am. i did mention that you CAN use the neapolitan chord in a major key environment, though. However, in Cmaj, the neapolitan chord wouldn't be Bbmaj, it would be Dbmajor.
    malletninja69
    I found this article very helpful, even as someone who writes music but is not primarily a guitarist. This has helped me very much and I really appreciate the time you put into this!
    Briar30
    Interesting.... Great lesson by the way. It's great to see someone teaching about something new that we haven't heard of.
    gwitersnamps
    Also I'd like to add where the neapolitan comes from, it's directly a sub for a IV chord with is why we frequently put it in first inversion.
    duck1992
    idioticloser wrote: Just realized you don't have any other lessons... fix that, please.
    yeah... haha, i'm working on it!
    major_shiznick
    This is a nice "guitarist-friendly" intro to the Neapolitan Sixth chord. Kudos for mentioning its subdominant/substitutional role in progressions, as this is something that other such lessons often skimp on. If you do a follow-up I recommend mentioning that a slightly gnarlier Neapolitan-esque chord is the bII7. It is used in all the same ways as the regular N6, but it's got a slightly nastier character that is well-suited to modulations, especially in minor-key jazz. A related topic that guitarists know all too little about are augmented sixth chords. If you know the theory behind those, I think they would fit into a follow-up nicely as well. Cheers.
    shredkilla
    Thankyou for this lesson, it sounds really smart when you apply it to scales as well! For example, when your using the chord progression you gave earlier; Am/Dm/Bb/E/Am. When the it comes around to the Dm you can use the Bb major scale over the top of that, then when it changes to Bb you can switch to the revaltive minor of the Bb major scale (which is G minor) and it sounds really smart. This has given me lots of new ideas for improvising so thankyou!
    chase09
    The tab for your first progression under the Examples heading does not follow the same progression that you listed immediately below it. You only tabbed Am twice, yet underneath you listed it three times. You may want to fix the tab so people don't get confused.
    duck1992
    chase09 wrote: The tab for your first progression under the Examples heading does not follow the same progression that you listed immediately below it. You only tabbed Am twice, yet underneath you listed it three times. You may want to fix the tab so people don't get confused.
    ha... yeah, I messed up there too. I'll get on it, thanks!
    duck1992
    shredkilla wrote: Thankyou for this lesson, it sounds really smart when you apply it to scales as well! For example, when your using the chord progression you gave earlier; Am/Dm/Bb/E/Am. When the it comes around to the Dm you can use the Bb major scale over the top of that, then when it changes to Bb you can switch to the revaltive minor of the Bb major scale (which is G minor) and it sounds really smart. This has given me lots of new ideas for improvising so thankyou!
    Thanks!
    duck1992
    major_shiznick wrote: This is a nice "guitarist-friendly" intro to the Neapolitan Sixth chord. Kudos for mentioning its subdominant/substitutional role in progressions, as this is something that other such lessons often skimp on. If you do a follow-up I recommend mentioning that a slightly gnarlier Neapolitan-esque chord is the bII7. It is used in all the same ways as the regular N6, but it's got a slightly nastier character that is well-suited to modulations, especially in minor-key jazz. A related topic that guitarists know all too little about are augmented sixth chords. If you know the theory behind those, I think they would fit into a follow-up nicely as well. Cheers.
    thanks! I'll keep that in mind
    katalyzt13
    I enjoyed the lesson - I didn't know anything about Neapolitan chords before I read this. I will be trying this out as soon as I get a chance. Thanks!
    aCloudConnected
    Excellent lesson! I've read about neapolitan chords before, but I had a little bit of trouble understanding when it was appropriate to use them. And now I know why they're called neapolitan sixth chords sometimes! I really get the concept now, thank you kind sir.
    gwitersnamps
    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.
    VI is never predominant, VI is always a tonic level substitution for I. Also, the word you were looking for is PREdominant, not subdominant. Subdominant is a chord, not a function. PREdominant chords are IV and ii in minor and iv and ii(dim) in minor. Otherwise, a good introduction to some oft-overlooked classical theory.
    idioticloser
    Duck, this is a fantastic article. I already knew what the N chord was, but it's application was a mystery. I'm going to go read all your other articles now, by the way.
    decus
    Hey , what you say is very interesting. I'm wondering about the son called 'you stepped out of a dream' , do you know the song. Well... |Dmaj|Dmaj|Eb|Eb|Cm|F7|Bb|Bb|Am7|D7|GM|GM| I guess the 1st 4 bars are a Neopolitan 6th? Can you tell its relationship to the following 2,5,1 into BbMaj?
    duck1992
    I am a little confused about what you are saying and asking, decus. Not to criticize, but you're mixing different ways to notate major chords, and it doesnt matter much here, but Im not sure which chords you're trying to say are major, major 7, or what, which might be real confusing in another context. I'll use fairly standard chord qualities for You Stepped Out Of A Dream and right now, and see if I cant clear this up for you. |Dmaj7|Dmaj7|Ebmaj7|Ebmaj7|Cmin7|F7|Bbmaj7|Bbmaj7|Am7| D7|Gmaj7|Gmaj7|etc, etc I think you're referring to the Ebmaj7 chord(s) in the 3rd and 4th bars as Neapoltian. I would say that it is NOT a Neapolitan chord, because it does not function as one. The N chord functions as a predominant chard, meaning that it should lead to some sort of dominant harmony. The Ebmaj chord leads to Cm7 instead, which is not dominant harmony for either D (from the preceding Dmaj7 chord) or for Bb (from the following 2-5-1 to Bbmaj). Neapolitan chords can also be used as a pivoting modulation chord, but this doesnt seem to make much sense theoretically and functionally, and doesnt sound like it either. Here's my take on it. The instrumental melody line over the Dmaj7 and Ebmaj7 chords is the same, except that over the Ebmaj7 chord it is transposed up a step to fit over the chord, this, combined with the rhythmic emphasis, really highlights the fact that the chord changed. This implies that a direct modulation, not a Neapolitan chord just happened (i.e. the modulation happened without any thoughtful harmonic preparation, like using the fifth of the new key or something like that; it just went directly to the new key). The first 2-5-1, in bars 5-8, is in the key of Bb. Ebmaj7 is the IV chord in Bb. In short, in bar 3 it modulates Bb, starting with the IV chord and establishes the new key with a 2-5-1 shortly thereafter. I know this might've been a little much, so if you still have any questions feel free to let me know here or with a pm!