What is a Neapolitan Chord

by Rodrigo Sanchez, Feb 8, 2021 . 4 min read

What is a Neapolitan Chord

What is a Neapolitan Chord? A Neapolitan chord is a major chord built on the flat second of a major scale. That is the simplest way to define it, but let’s expand on it.

Let’s take the basic scale of C major, for illustration purposes. We learned in kindergarten that the musical notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Those notes make up the C Major scale and each of them represents a degree on that scale. For instance, E is the third degree, as it is the third note on the scale. Conversely, G is the fifth scale degree. The second degree is D, and if you flatten that you get D flat. So in the key of C, the Neapolitan chord is built on the D flat.

But really, what is a Neapolitan chord?

If you have a little bit of music theory knowledge, the statements above should be pretty clear. If not, you can still learn what a Neapolitan chord is and how to use it, but it’s going to be harder. For now, we have defined that the Neapolitan chord is built on the flat second of a major scale (also known as minor second). For simplicity, let’s stick with the key of C (with the notes that most of us learned in preschool). Now, what do we do once you have the root where this chord is built upon (the minor second or flattened second)?

The Neapolitan chord is a major chord

This part is simple, but I’lll make it simpler just for you. Major chords with the root, the third, and the fifth of a major scale. If you were paying attention, you should be able to figure out which notes to use to build a C major chord (the one with the notes you learned in preschool). The root is C (first note of the scale), the third is E (the third note on the C major scale). Finally, the fifth is G (the fifth note on the scale). And there you have the C major chord: C E G. 

Great! Now we are going to build the Neapolitan chord the same way. It is a major chord, so we are going to take the root, the third, and the fifth to construct it. However, we now have to build it on Db with the Db major scale (Db Eb F F# G# A# C). That would be Db (root), F (third) and G# (fith). And there you have your Neapolitan chord on the key of C major. 

Not so fast

The Neapolitan chord often appears as a first inversion chord. Say what?! Don’t worry, it’s easy. The first inversion means that you take the third note and place it first, followed by the fifth and then the root. That means that in the key of C major the first inversion Neapolitan chord would be F, G# and Db. Those are the same exact notes as the root position chord but in a different order. Again, these might seem like advanced concepts if you know nothing about music theory. But it’s actually quite simple. 

Who uses Neapolitan chords?

The short answer is everybody with some chops and swagger. That’s right! The Neapolitan chord is present in the work of classical composers such as Beethoven and Pergolessi all the way to pop stars like Britney Spears (“Womanizer”) and Lana del Rey (“Video Games”). Not Rock N’ Roll enough for you? Well, this chord is also present in the music of The Rolling Stones (“Mother’s Little Helper”) and The Beatles (“Because” and “Do You Want To Know a Secret”).

A little bit of music theory can go a long way. This is true whether you are a guitarist playing in a cover band, or a songwriter wanting to have commercial and published songs. Building chords and knowing scales will give you a lot of power and freedom and should be included in your practice routine. Music theory often gets a bad rep as something boring and that will hinder your creativity. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

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