VI. Chromaticism

Neapolitan 6th (♭II6)

Brian Jarvis

Key Takeaways

  • Chromatic predominant chord
  • A major triad built on \downarrow\hat{2} (ra)
  • Typically found in first inversion
  • \downarrow\hat{2} (ra) resolves down to ti

Overview:

The Neapolitan sixth (\flat\mathrm{II}^{6}) is a chromatic predominant chord. It is a major triad built on \downarrow\hat{2} (ra) and is typically found in first inversion.

Context:

The Neapolitan sixth is essentially a chromatic version of a \mathrm{ii}^{\circ 6} 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, \downarrow\hat{2} (ra). Like \mathrm{ii}^{\circ 6}, it is typically used in a cadential context. \flat\mathrm{II}^{6} can be found in major and minor keys but is more common in minor keys. Listen to the example below to compare a simple cadential progression with \mathrm{ii}^{\circ 6} and then with \flat\mathrm{II}^{6}.

Example 1. To change from \mathrm{ii}^{\circ 6} to \flat\mathrm{II}^{6}, lower \hat{2} (re to ra).

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.

Voice Leading:

There is a standard voice leading associated with \flat\mathrm{II}^{6}. 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, \hat{2} (re) has been lowered to \downarrow\hat{2} (ra) so its tendency is to continue downward. Because \flat\mathrm{II}^{6} resolves to a \mathrm{V} chord, ultimately \downarrow\hat{2} (ra) will resolve down to the closest member of the dominant triad which is the leading tone (\uparrow\hat{7}, ti). Of course, the true dominant chord is often delayed by a cadential \begin{smallmatrix}6\\4\end{smallmatrix} chord, and so that voice will typically have \hat{1} (do) between the two (\downarrow\hat{2}-\hat{1}-\uparrow\hat{7} or ra-do-ti). Notice also, that the \downarrow\hat{6} (le) tends to resolve down to \hat{5} (sol). The example below illustrates the standard voice leading (see the red and blue notes in particular).

Example 2.Standard voice-leading paradigm when \flat\mathrm{II}^{6} resolves to \mathrm{V} with and without cadential \begin{smallmatrix}6\\4\end{smallmatrix} and with and without a seventh on the dominant.

Associated Progressions:

Common progressions

  • \flat\mathrm{II}^{6}\ \mathrm{V} ()
  • \flat\mathrm{II}^{6}\ \mathrm{vii}^{\circ7}/\mathrm{V\ \ \ V} ()

While \flat\mathrm{II}^{6} often goes directly to \mathrm{V} (with or without a cadential \begin{smallmatrix}6\\4\end{smallmatrix}), the applied chord \mathrm{vii}^{\circ7}/\mathrm{V} commonly occurs between \flat\mathrm{II}^{6} and \mathrm{V}, creating the progression \flat\mathrm{II}^{6}\ \mathrm{vii}^{\circ7}/\mathrm{V\ \ \ V}. The added diminished chord intensifies the push toward the expected dominant.

Example 3. Using \mathrm{vii}^{\circ7}/\mathrm{V} between \flat\mathrm{II}^{6} and \mathrm{V}.

Due to \flat\mathrm{II}^{6}’s similarity with \mathrm{ii}^{\circ 6}, it is approached harmonically in the same way.

Less Common Uses:

Progressions

As mentioend above, the Neapolitan mostly appears in a small number of stock harmonic progressions. Less often, however, the Neapolitan can be found in root position (\flat\mathrm{II}) and it may lead to an inverted dominant instead of the root-position version (\mathrm{V}\begin{smallmatrix}4\\2\end{smallmatrix} in particular).

Key area

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 toncization or even used as a key area.

Musical Example

Example 4 shows a relatively straight-forward example of a \flat\mathrm{II}^{6} chord occuring in the context of a cadential progression. Note that the harmoic rhythm is a half-note long, so think of beats 3 and 4 in measure 6 as part of a single harmony.

Audio

Example 4.Frederic Chopin, Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55, No. 1 – Neapolitan sixth as part of a cadential progression.

Assignments

Neapolitan 6th Assignment

  • Includes spelling, figured bass realization, 4-part voice-leading with Roman numerals, and analysis of musical excerpt.

Media Attributions

  • chopin-nocturne-f-minor-op-55-no-1

License

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Open Music Theory by Brian Jarvis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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