Neapolitan chords are a popular way to add some chromatic harmony flavor to your (most-often) minor chord progressions.
They convey a sense of hopeful melancholy, as they are built off of a lowered 2nd scale step. That means that they have this darker feel to them than chords built from a regular 2nd scale step in major or minor modes. Yet, they also express an unexpected brightness to them. In a major key, the chord built from scale step 2 is minor, and in a minor key, that chord is diminished. Both chords are characterized as being “darker.”
Neapolitan chords are generally a major chord built from a lowered 2nd scale step in either major or minor keys (they’re more often used in minor keys), so they’re brighter than the chord that would normally be built from scale step 2. They’re implicitly paradoxical in what they express, then, because the lowered 2 sounds darker, more serious, but the major quality sounds brighter and more hopeful, especially in the context of a minor key.
I couldn’t think of a word or phrase that summed this sensation up, so I asked my TikTok followers what root-position Neapolitan chords convey to them. The one that resonated most with me is “the breath you take when you behold your destiny” (thanks to @Kevin Andrews for this gem!). I don’t know what emotion that is, but that phrase is what I experience when I hear a Neapolitan chord.
What is a Neapolitan Chord?
I’ve given you a basic definition of what a Neapolitan is, but it’s helpful to step back and think about it in terms of what type of harmony Neapolitan chords can be categorized as.
In the Western tradition, we can divide harmony into diatonic and chromatic harmony.
Diatonic comes from a Latin root that means “of the tone.” This refers to any type of harmony that is found within a specific key. That means that there are 7 chords available in any given key, built from the 7 scale steps in that key.
Chromatic also has a Latin root. It means “color.” Musically speaking, chromatic harmonies add more color to a work by providing harmonies (colors) that aren’t found within the given key. There are infinite possibilities for chromatic chords and their relationships to diatonic chords, but there are also some chromatic harmonies that tend to be used more than others. We give those chords specific names and talk about their relationships to diatonic harmonies.
Thus, a Neapolitan chord, we say is built from a lowered 2nd scale step. This means that we take a regular scale, let’s say A minor that has the notes A B C D E F G in it. We count up to the 2nd scale step: B. Then we lower that by half step to become B♭. When we build a major chord on top of that (B♭ D F), it is our Neapolitan chord.
Neapolitan chords generally serve as pre-dominant chords, which means that have a connecting function and come just before the dominant (V) chord.
Neapolitan Chords in the Classical Canon
Named for the popularity by a group of Italian composers called the “Neapolitan school,” Neapolitan chords have a long history of use in tonal music, so they’re easily found in classical repertoire.
In classical repertoire, however, Neapolitans generally appear in first inversion because they can voice lead more smoothly to the dominant.
Using our example from above, a Neapolitan chord in A minor in first inversion would be B♭/D. Since the dominant chord of A minor is E7, we can lead very smoothly to that dominant in root position when the D of the Neapolitan is in the bass. It’s also helpful to double the 3rd of the chord (D in this example), which is the minor 7th in the V7 chord.
When leading from this B♭/D to E7, the lower D steps up to E, the upper D stays the same and becomes part of the E7, then the 5th (F) steps down to E as well, and the root (B♭) skips down to G♯.
This inversion of the Neapolitan chord is known as the Neapolitan 6th chord or an N6 for short. There are a couple of ways to notate the Neapolitan in Roman numeral analyses: ♭II(6) or N(6). Both are common, so it’s helpful to remember both ways of notating it.
Despite the Neapolitan 6th being a common and smooth way to lead to the pre-dominant, many more contemporary composers prefer to leave the Neapolitan in root position to draw more attention to its “beholding one’s destiny” sensation. This is especially helpful in composing for film.
Neapolitan Chord in “Enterprising Young Men”
The piece “Enterprising Young Men” comes from the 2009 Star Trek movie, with music by Michael Giacchino.
The theme accompanies the new Star Fleet recruits, as they embark on their first mission on the U.S.S. Enterprise, so it seems fitting that Giacchino would use a Neapolitan chord to represent that mixture of excitement and fear that film heroes experience as they “go where no one has ever gone before.”
In the key of D minor, the chord progression for this excerpt goes Dm B♭ E♭ A (i VI ♭II V), which fits well into the basic phrase model of Tonic (T) Pre-Dominant (PD) Dominant (D) and back to Tonic that is characteristic of music that uses functional harmony. The VI and ♭II act as pre-dominants that lead well into the dominant.
Giacchino also uses another common practice when it comes to leading from Neapolitan chords to the dominant: he fills in the jump from the root of the Neapolitan to the 3rd of the dominant by adding in a step, a passing tone. In this case, it’s the E♭ that steps down to D and then stepping down to C♯ in the melody.
How to Use a Neapolitan Chord in Your Chord Progressions
To add Neapolitan chords into your chord progressions, start by figuring out what the Neapolitan chord actually is in the key you’re in and then add it into your progression!
- Identify the tonal center of your piece/song/progression and the scale it uses (Let’s use C minor for an example, so the scale is C D E♭ F G A♭ B♭)
- Identify the second scale step in that key (D in this example!)
- Lower it by half step (D becomes D♭—if we’d had a ♯ on the second scale step, it would become a ♮)
- Build a major chord from that lowered 2 (D♭ major is spelled D♭ F A♭)
- Add it into your chord progression right before the dominant chord (If your progression was i VI V i, you can add it in between IV and V, so in the key of C minor for our example, our chord progression becomes Cm A♭ D♭ G Cm)
There ya have a nice chord progression featuring a Neapolitan chord. Once you start filling out he chord progression, you can decide whether or not you want to use it in root position or inversion depending on how much attention you want to draw to the Neapolitan itself.
Learn More About Neapolitan Chords
You can learn more about Neapolitan chords, other borrowed chords, chromatic harmony, functional harmony (that basic phrase model I mentioned), and more in the course Chord Progressions: Cadences to Key Changes and the ebook Chromatic Harmony: Advanced Chord Progressions.