V. Chromaticism

Neapolitan 6th (♭II6)

Brian Jarvis

Key Takeaways

  • The major triad built on ra [latex](\downarrow\hat2)[/latex] is a chromatic predominant chord called a Neapolitan sixth (♭II6).
  • ♭II is typically found in first inversion (♭II6).
  • In voice leading, ra resolves down to ti [latex](\downarrow\hat2-\hat7)[/latex].

Chapter Playlist

The Neapolitan sixth (♭II6) is a chromatic predominant chord. It is a major triad built on ra [latex](\downarrow\hat{2})[/latex] and is typically found in first inversion. While the name “Neapolitan” is a reference to the Italian city of Naples (Napoli), the historical connection is quite shallow, as the chord was used in many other European cities in the 18th and 19th centuries.


The Neapolitan sixth is essentially a chromatic version of a iio6 chord. It functions the same and can be used in the same context, but it has a more dramatic effect because of its chromatic root, ra [latex](\downarrow\hat{2})[/latex]. Like iio6, it is typically used in a cadential context. ♭II6 can be found in major and minor keys but is more common in minor keys. Due to the similarities between ♭II6 and iio6, both are approached harmonically in the same way. Listen to Example 1 below to compare a simple cadential progression with iio6 and then with ♭II6.

Example 1. To change from iio6 to ♭II6, lower [latex]\mathit{\hat{2}}[/latex] (re to ra).


Try it!

Construct the chord according to the given Roman numeral.

Voice Leading

There is a standard voice leading associated with ♭II6. In general, the chromatic tones follow standard altered-tone practice: the altered notes continue to move in the direction in which they were altered. In this case, re [latex](\hat{2})[/latex] has been lowered to ra [latex](\downarrow\hat{2})[/latex], so its tendency is to continue downward. Because ♭II6 resolves to a V chord, ultimately ra [latex](\downarrow\hat{2})[/latex] will resolve down to the closest member of the dominant triad, which is ti [latex](\uparrow\hat{7})[/latex]. Of course, the true dominant chord is often delayed by a [latex]\mathrm{cad.^6_4}[/latex] chord, and so that voice will typically have do [latex](\hat{1})[/latex] between the two: ra–do–ti [latex](\downarrow\hat{2}-\hat{1}-\uparrow\hat{7})[/latex]. Notice also that the le [latex](\downarrow\hat{6})[/latex] tends to resolve down to sol [latex](\hat{5})[/latex]. Example 2 illustrates the standard voice leading (see the red and blue notes in particular).

Example 2. Standard voice-leading paradigms when ♭II6 resolves to V.

Try it!

Practice resolving the given Neapolitan sixth chord to the indicated Roman numeral.

Example 3 shows a relatively straightforward example of a ♭II6 chord occuring in the context of a cadential progression. Note that the harmonic rhythm is a half note long, so think of beats 3 and 4 in measure 6 as part of a single harmony.

Example 3. Frederic Chopin, Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55, no. 1. Neapolitan sixth as part of a cadential progression.

Associated Progressions

Common progressions

  • ♭II6–V
  • ♭II6–viio7/V–V

While ♭II6 often goes directly to V (with or without a [latex]\mathrm{cad.^6_4}[/latex]), the applied chord viio7 commonly occurs between ♭II6 and V, creating the progression ♭II6–viio7/V–V (Example 4). The added diminished chord intensifies the push toward the expected dominant.

Example 4. Using viio7 between ♭II6 and V.

Less Common Uses

As mentioned above, the Neapolitan mostly appears in a small number of stock harmonic progressions. Less often, however, the Neapolitan can be found in root position ♭II, and it may lead to an inverted dominant instead of the root-position version [latex](\mathrm{V^4_2}[/latex] in particular).

While the Neapolitan is most often used as a single chord within a cadential progression, it—like any other chord—can be prolonged through an extended tonicization or even used as a key area, as in Example 5. ♭II is introduced first as a temporary tonic and elaborated with a pedal point, then the phrase ends with a typical cadential progression with the Neapolitan sixth: ♭II6–viio7/V–V7–i.

Example 5. “Erlkönig” by Franz Schubert (1815; excerpt begins at 3:23) tonicizes the Neapolitan chord and then uses it as part of a cadential progression.

  1. Neapolitan Sixths (.pdf, .docx). Asks students to spell ♭II6, realize figured bass, write 4-part voice-leading with Roman numerals, and analyze a musical excerpt.


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