A Survey of Music Theory for the College Classroom: Chromatic Harmony 1

Borrowed and Neapolitan Chords

Borrowed Chords

The practice of borrowing chords from the minor mode and using them in the major mode is called mode mixture or modal borrowing. Modal borrowing greatly enhances the palette of harmonic colors available and blurs the line between major and minor keys. In the major mode we can borrow chords that include the \(\hat{3}\)\(\hat{6}\), and \(\hat{7}\) from the parallel minor key. The presence of these colorful chords in major keys can be refreshing, unexpected, and at times musically dramatic. 

Borrowed chords function the same as the diatonic chords they replace. For example, the minor mode iv chord is a perfectly acceptable substitution for the usual IV chord in a major key. Some borrowed chords are much more common than others. For example, the viio7 is a commonly borrowed chord, while the v7 is not. The most used borrowed chords are those that involve the \(\hat{6}\)including the iio, iiØ7, iv(7) and viio7. This should not be surprising, since the supertonic, subdominant, and leading tone chords are the most prevalent harmonies after the tonic and dominant in both major and minor modes. 

Other commonly borrowed chords are the minor i chord and the VI(M7). The III(M7) and the VII are rather rare, which again makes sense because the mediant and subtonic triads and seventh chords are the least used diatonic chords in minor keys. 

Neapolitan Chord

The Neapolitan chord is built on the lowered second scale degre (\(\hat{2}\)) and is named after the “Neapolitan school” of 18th century opera composers based in Naples, Italy. The Neapolitan chord is almost always a major triad, and the symbol for it is simply N, or N6 when the chord is used in its typical first inversion. Note that some theorists use the alternative label II or the II6 for Neapolitan chords. Minor Neapolitan chords are exceptionally rare, and the lowercase letter n or n6 (orii and ii6) can be used on those occasions. The Neapolitan chord is normally used in minor keys and is most often in first inversion, hence the common designation Neapolitan sixth chord. It also occurs in the major mode, but this is not as frequent. It is occasionally found in root position and much less regularly in second inversion. It has the same function as the supertonic chord, but since it is a major triad, it has a remarkably different sound that adds drama to any progression.

The Neapolitan chord is normally used as a substitution for the supertonic triad, and so is often preceded by tonic, subdominant, and submediant functions, which in major keys can include borrowed chords. It is also possible to tonicize the Neapolitan chord with a secondary dominant or secondary leading tone chord.

The following chart shows all the possible borrowed and Neapolitan related chords in C major, except for the minor Neapolitan (n or n6). Not represented is the major tonic triad (I) that is often used as the final chord for minor mode pieces during the later Renaissance period and throughout the Baroque period. This usage is called the Picardy third, and it was thought to bring a more satisfying end to a minor mode piece than did the diatonic minor tonic triad. We do not think of the \(\hat{7}\) in harmonic minor nor the \(\hat{6}\) and \(\hat{7}\) in melodic minor as borrowed scale degrees, which means the major tonic triad is the only chord that can be borrowed from the parallel major key.

borrowed and Neapolitan chords chart

Part-Writing with Borrowed and Neapolitan Chords

Follow the usual part-writing procedures and rules established for diatonic triads and seventh chords. Remember that borrowed chords can be freely substituted for their diatonic equivalents in most musical textures. Consider the following example. Because of the extensive borrowing, most of this progression could be analyzed in c minor.

part writing borrowed and Neapolitan chords

Extra care must be taken when part-writing Neapolitan chords. 

  • Neapolitan chords are usually found in first inversion. In an SATB texture, double the third of the N6.
  • The N6 progresses directly to a V, to a V42, to a i64, or to a viio7/V(7) on the way to the tonic chord. 
  • The melodic objective of the \(\hat{2}\) is the leading tone. The \(\hat{2}\) can leap down to the leading tone in a \(\hat{2}\) – \(\hat{7}\) – \(\hat{1}\) pattern, or it can pass through the tonic in a \(\hat{2}\) – \(\hat{1}\) – \(\hat{7}\) – \(\hat{1}\) pattern, depending on the chord progression.
  • Care should be taken to avoid parallel fifths when progressing from an N6 to a i64. This can be done by using parallel fourths instead, as shown in the following example.

neapolitan chord part writing resolutions

Using Mode Mixture and Neapolitan Chords in Modulations

Modal borrowing and Neapolitan chords can be used in common chord modulations to foreign keys. Using borrowed chords in this manner unlocks all the closely related keys of the parallel minor. The closely related keys to C major include F, G, a, d, and e. By sliding into the parallel minor key of c minor, the closely related keys include f, g, E, A, and B. In the following progression, the foreign key of A is easily accessible by using the borrowed iv as a common chord.

mode mixture in modulations

Neapolitan chords can also be used as common chords in dramatic modulations to foreign keys, as the following example demonstrates.

neapolitan chords in modulation