The Neapolitan Chord


  1. [01:09] William Crotch, Elements of Musical Composition (London, 1812) [imslp], p. 72.

  2. [01:28] Crotch seems to have coined the term “Neapolitan sixth.” The term “Italian sixth” can be seen as early as 1770 (John Holden, An Essay Towards A Rational System of Music, p. 100 [imslp]). Following this model, John Wall Callcott introduced the terms “French sixth” and “German sixth” (A Musical Grammar, 1806) [imslp], “sect. II. Of The Extreme Sharp Sixth”, pp. 237-240. The first known appearance of the term “Neapolitan sixth” is in Crotch’s aforementioned work.

  3. [01:47] Crotch writes: “In this work, as in some others, Do is the key note, Re the 2d, &c… in France Re always signifies D; Mi, E, &c.” William Crotch, Elements of Musical Composition (London, 1812) [imslp], p. 7. It should be noted that Crotch’s labeling of solmization syllables does not always apply the seven syllables as straightforward indications of bass scale degrees. His labels often refer instead to the roots of chords, as in the second chord of his Example 331, shown in the video.

  4. [02:28] Originally, Crotch supplied four additional analogous examples in C major, which have been omitted in the video. Surprisingly, he makes no mention of the fact that the Neapolitan chord is a phenomenon that is typically found in minor keys.

  5. [06:35] For more on this subject, see in our episode Durum and Molle / Hard and soft in the music of the Renaissance [link].

  6. [07:36] Christoph Bernhard, Tractatus compositionis augmentatus, Cap. 29. See edition: Christoph Bernhard, Die Kompositionslehre Heinrich Schützens in der Fassung seines Schülers Christoph Bernhard / eingel. und hrsg. von Josef Maria Müller-Blattau (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1926).

  7. [12:10] Though born in Rome, Scarlatti served as maestro di cappella in Naples and taught at the Santa Maria di Loreto conservatory for about two months in 1689, before departing to pursue other professional opportunities. Scarlatti later returned to Naples, where he again assumed the position of maestro di cappella and taught such students as Francesco Geminiani, Johann Adolf Hasse, and Carlo Cotumacci. See Malcolm Boyd, et al., “Scarlatti, (Pietro) Alessandro (Gaspare)” Grove Music Online (Oxford University Press, 2001). Francesco Florimo played a role in mythologizing Scarlatti’s status in Neapolitan musical history, calling him “the first link in the chain of the great maestri of the school of Naples” (“il primo anello della catena dei grandi maestri della scuola di Napoli”) in his La scuola musicale di Napoli e i suoi conservatorii (Naples: Morano, 1881-1883), vol. 2, p. 13. See Giorgio Sanguinetti, The Art of Partimento: History, Theory, and Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 29, 59-61.

  8. [16:48] Giuseppe Sigismondo, the most important early historian of the Neapolitan school, wrote of Durante, “How are we to call this master? For my part I shall call him the master of masters, as Piccinni, Sacchini, Traetta, Guglielmi, etc. have been his pupils.” (“Come chiameremo noi questo maestro? Io per me lo chiamo il maestro de’ maestri, perché i Piccinni, i Sacchini, i Traetta, i Guglielmi etc. sono stati suoi scolari.”) Giuseppe Sigismondo, Apotheosis of Music in the Kingdom of Naples, ed. Claudio Bacciagaluppi, Giulia Giovani, and Rafaele Mellace, trans. Beatrice Scaldini (Rome: Società Editrice di Musicologia, 2016), p. 260. Filippo Trajetta, a student of Piccinni and Fedele Fenaroli and therefore a member of the so-called “Durantist” school, likewise emphasized Durante’s importance, citing Pergolesi as well as the same pupils mentioned by Sigismondo: “Durante gave a system to the four Conservatorios of Naples. Pergolesi, his scholar, arrived soon after at a point of perfection in combining the simplicity of melody with the grandeur of scientific harmony. [...] Four other scholars of Durante, viz., Piccinni, Sachini, Guglielmi, and [Tommaso Trajetta], are styled the reformators of music. They are likewise called the masters of the modern composers.” Phil. Trajetta, An Introduction to the Art and Science of Music (Philadelphia: I. Ashmead & Co., 1828), p. 51. For more about Francesco Durante and his role in the Neapolitan partimento tradition, see our episode Partimento: Training the Maestri [link].

  9. [18:46] The two “expanded” ways to use the Neapolitan chord that we show are: 1.) using the Neapolitan chord as a tool for modulation, and 2.) using the Neapolitan chord in its “root position.” Two additional “expanded” uses of the chord may also be mentioned: 3.) The Neapolitan chord could be used in a major key (i.e. "borrowing" it from minor); see, for example, the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92, mm. 156 and 162. 4.) In its most extreme metamorphosis, which becomes quite distant from the chord’s historical origins, a “Neapolitan” chord could theoretically take the form of a minor triad instead of a major one; see, for example, Rachmaninoff’s piano transcription of the prelude of Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin in E major, BWV 1006.1, m. 107, where the major third of a G-major triad in the key of F# minor is lowered to a minor third, which can be understood as a brief but striking “root-position minor Neapolitan chord” (the passage can also be interpreted as a short modulation to the key of D before returning to F# minor).

  10. [19:35] The “key of the Neapolitan” itself can serve as the destination for such a modulation. See, for example, Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, K. 581, iii. Trio I, mm. 36-40: in the key of A minor, the bass of the Neapolitan chord (D) is briefly treated as the third degree of its own scale in B-flat major—this chord alternates with the typical “dominant” 4/2 chord on the fourth scale degree (E-flat) before arriving finally at a 6/4 on E to make a cadence in A minor. Similar examples appear in the passage from the third movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata (Op. 27/2) that appeared in the video previously (m. 126); in Ignaz Moscheles’s Sonate Mélancholique in F-sharp minor, Op. 49, m. 14; and, most elaborately, in Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C, ii. Andante con moto, mm. 248-267.

  11. [19:53] Among the first theorists to present the Neapolitan chord in this way was Alfred Day, in his book A Treatise on Harmony (London, 1845) [link]. For more, see the thesis (M.A.) of Emmett Lewis, The Neapolitan sixth chord, its origin and development through J. S. Bach (University of Rochester, 1939) [link], pp. 1-6.

  12. [20:20] Though they are quite rare, examples of the “root-position Neapolitan chord” can occasionally be found in earlier music. See, for example, Niccolò Jommelli’s Requiem (1756), “Hostias,” on the text “de morte.” By the same modern inversional logic, “Neapolitan 6/4 chords” are also possible: see, for example, Mozart’s String Quintet in C, K. 515, i. Allegro, m. 43 (followed shortly thereafter by a modulation to the “key of the Neapolitan”); and Schubert’s “Der Wegweiser,” mm. 11-14, 46-49.

  13. [21:13] Frederick Arthur Gore Ouseley, A Treatise on Harmony (Oxford: Clarendon press, 1883) [google books], p. 164: “Dr. Crotch, Dr. Callcott, and most English theorists, have called it the ‘Neapolitan sixth,’ but such a name is very unmeaning, as it certainly was at no time peculiar to the Neapolitan composers.” See also Ebenezer Prout, Harmony: Its Theory and Practice (London: Augener & co., 1889) [imslp], p. 124: “The first inversion of this chord [on the lowered second degree] is generally known as the 'Neapolitan sixth', a name for which it is difficult to give a satisfactory reason.”

  14. [21:23] Emmett Lewis, The Neapolitan sixth chord, its origin and development through J. S. Bach (University of Rochester, 1939) [link], p. 54.

POST PUBLICATION NOTE: Many thanks to YouTube user "Music Theory Doctor" for noting that Purcell demonstrated a Neapolitan chord writing that "Flat Sixth before a Close ... is a Favourite Note with the Italians, for they generally make use of it". See Introduction to the Skill of Musick (12th edn., 1694) [imslp], p. 132.


The following excerpts were recorded by Doron Schleifer (singing) and Elam Rotem (organ):

  • Alessandro Grandi, O quam tu pulchra es. Found in Ghirlanda sacra (Venice, 1625) [imslp] [Gaspari].

  • Giacomo Carissimi, Historia di Jephte a 6 voci et organo (1648) [imslp].

  • Luigi Rossi, L’Orfeo (1647), scena X.

  • Alessandro Scarlatti, Poi che riseppe Orfeo (ca. 1700) [imslp] [cpdl]

The following excerpts were taken from commercially available recordings:

  • Antonio Vivaldi, Magnificat, RV610 (1717) [imslp]. Performed by Jordi Savall [link].

  • Antonio Vivaldi, Violin Concerto in G minor, RV 315; Op.8 No.2. L'estate (Summer) from Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons) [imslp]. Performed by Freivogel & Voices of Music [link].

  • Johann Sebastian Bach, Toccata Adagio and Fuga in C, BWV 564 [imslp]. Performed by Jörg-Andreas Bötticher, Die Orgeln der Predigerkirche Basel (Psallite, 1996).

  • George Frideric Handel, Messiah, HWV 56, from no. 29 “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart” [imslp]. Performed by Rene Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi, 2006).

  • Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Livietta e Tracollo (1753) [imslp], aria: “Caro, perdonami”. Performed by Sigiswald Kuijken (Accent 2009).

  • Francesco Durante, Sonate per cembalo divisi in studii e divertimenti (Napels, 1757-1759), from “Studio terzo”. Home recording by Elam Rotem.

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Die Zauberflöte, K.620 (1791) [imslp], aria: “Ach ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden”. Performed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec, 2011).

  • Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No.14 (“moonlight sonata”), Op.27 No.2 (1801) [imslp]. Performed by Ronald Brautigam (BIS, 2007).

  • Franz Schubert, Impromptu in G-flat major, from four impromptus, D.899, Op.90 (1827) [imslp]. Performed by Rosalía Gómez Lasheras, YouTube [link].

  • Frédéric Chopin, Prelude in C minor, No. 20, from Preludes, Op. 28 (1839) [imslp]. Home recording by Gilad Katznelson.


Created by Elam Rotem and Sean Curtice, June 2022

The recordings made especially for this episode are by Doron Schleifer (voice) & Elam Rotem (organ), Karel Valter (audio engineer).

Special thanks to Jörg-Andreas Bötticher, Gilad Katznelson, Lisandro Abadie, Alon Schab, Hannah Lane and Anne Smith.