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    Clearing Confusion about the Neapolitan Chord

    Dear Colleagues,


    Every theory teacher who has decent knowledge in the discipline of harmony must be astounded by some incorrect statements related  to the Neapolitan triad. For example, in a recently published theory textbook one may read that "bII6 includes two tendency tones that lead downward: lowered 2 and the minor form of 6. These tones should not be doubled".


    Of course, this statement is downright incorrect, and I do not want to imagine myself in the role of a student who sits in a class where such directions are spread around. Not to speak of the fact that the writers of this book introduce N6 separately from N5 and bring the latter about only a few chapters later, this time contradicting themselves by saying that the root of N5 is to be doubled! Wait a second – isn't that same tendency tone they denied a doubling two chapters before?


    I attribute this confusion to the lack of understanding the difference between a true altered chord and a borrowed chord which appears altered in certain context, but is purely diatonic in another. Thus I would like to present a brief summary of N and to clear the confusion:


    1. In the classical major-minor system, N is a chord obtained under the influence of the Phrygian mode. Some theorists call it "Phrygian Subdominant". Therefore, it is a modal mixture chord, only that it is not borrowed from the opposite mode, but from an old mode. Hence, it does not make sense to separate it from a general presentation of modal mixture chords by placing it in a different chapter. Similarly, it does not make sense to separate the so-called "augmented sixth chords" from "altered chords", because the former are most conspicuous examples of the latter. Thus, I cannot help smiling when I come across a chapter entitled "Augmented Sixth Chords" that is followed by another chapter named "Altered Chords"...because it sounds like introducing "Pears" and then "Fruits".


    2. N is a major triad which appears in both root position and first inversion. In both harmonic positions, either the root or the third may be freely doubled, the third emphasizing the S function of the chord, while the root facilitating the voice leading in some cases. For example, if you use N as a common chord in a modulation, and you want to reinterpret it as a dominant triad in a subsequent key, it would be wiser to double its root, because the third of N will become a leading tone in the following key. Or, at least, to rearrange N by doubling its root before the reinterpretation.

    As a root of N, b2 does not bare the characteristics of a member of a dissonant chord or a secondary dominant, and all warnings that it "must not be doubled" represent false claims, immediately dismissed by ample evidence of the opposed practice in music. Besides, degree b6 (or 6 in minor) may also be doubled in N, although this occurs much more rarely. b6 however is doubled in other chords such as bVI and even in minor IV, if the necessity arises (see Bach scores, for example).

    Therefore, if a teacher is confused, there is no need to confuse the student...by equalizing chord members of borrowed major of minor triads with chord members of true chromatic chords or secondary dominants, some of which should not be doubled.

    3. The cross relation between b2 and 2 in the connection between N and D is fully recognized as idiomatic.

    4. The goal of b2 is not the leading tone (as falsely claimed in some books) but the tonic note, which eventually arrives after the leading tone. Thus, melodically, a neighboring figure surrounding the tonic note is formed between b2 and the leading tone, which creates a fine embellishment with "nostalgic character" (re-bemol, down to si, up to do).

    5. When used in root position, N frequently produces a leap of an augmented fourth in its connection with the dominant. This is also widely practiced, for the deeper melodic connection in the bass line is b2-1, not b2-5. Thus b2 only goes through 5 into 1, and the +4 does not bother anyone.


    Thank you for your attention.


    Best regards,


    Dimitar Ninov

    Dr. Dimitar Ninov

    Texas State University

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    • 2 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • I find Bach's practice most interesting in the places where the N6 (or Phrygian II) doesn't proceed to V in the "usual" way.

      Two examples: "Erbarme dich," measure 7. N6 proceeds to V 4/2 by way of a momentary diatonic ii 6/5 (the figured bass appears thus, even though melodically the B, fifth over the bass E is seemingly passing).

      Chaconne (solo violin) measure 243. The bass E flat moves up chromatically to E natural supporting vii o6/5. The "usual" motion from the root E flat to A, root of V, is "composed out" as a (mostly) chromatic ascent Eb-En-F-G-G#-A. I rather imagine Bach avoiding the direct leap of a tritone Eb-A here.



    • You can certainly look at the Neopolitan chord in historic or pedantic terms and the way it was used in the past, but certainly in 2018 there are other solutions and resolutions possible and what composer today would even think in those terms much less use dated language.  A Neopolitan chord is a pitch class set that certainly found updated solutions as musical eras evolved and changed.  Is a Neopolitan chord treated the same in the Baroque period as the Romantic period?  Certainly for the sake of study we examine period usage as a detail of musical art and define specific language as a necessary part of human cognition, but given the same chord a jazz musician, a composer, music student, musician from a different culture, or pop musician would all find different meanings, resolutions, doublings, voice leading, etc.  That creativity and open minded perspective is necessary for music to evolve.