While studying in music school I (for the most part) had amazing teachers. The teachers that I learned the most from were primarily schooled in Jazz Theory. Ironically my Traditional Harmony teachers were not that great. One in particular was a well known conductor and basically had a substitute for most of his classes because he was too busy jet setting the world conducting.
As one can imagine this made it extremely difficult to find continuity and understanding within the curriculum. Having different teachers from week to week not only left me with a bad grade but a bad taste in my mouth. In hindsight I probably should have dropped the class and taken it another semester. However, I’m not sure that I would have aced the class if I did have an amazing teacher.
Let me explain. I came to a realization that, although classical composers were geniuses and laid the ground work for most of modern music, they too didn’t have a complete grasp of traditional tonal harmony. What I personally believe, as this is just a theory, is that traditional classical composers were still in the throws of figuring out how tonal harmony worked. For that reason (again in my personal belief) they used really poor ways of explaining their extended harmony techniques.
As an appreciator of music, I put these classical composers on a pedestal, and at the time didn’t think for a second that their techniques could be easily misinterpreted or that the composers poorly explained them. Neapolitan, French +6, German +6 and Italian +6 chords didn’t register for me, and again as I said earlier, even a good teacher may not have been able to help me understand them.
About all I understood about these chords was that they didn’t fit into the Traditional Harmony theory they had at the time, so they just named the chord from which country or region that developed it. To me these chords were like a brain surgeon pressing on a part of the brain, not knowing what it would do, and then the patients arm would rise. Then the surgeon would name that procedure after him or herself even though it wasn’t understood why that would happen.
Not until I understood a good amount of Jazz Theory did I realize how these chords were functioning. Also I realized that a whole slew of harmony may not have been discovered or understood during the classical period. Jazz Theory helped me to see that there was a better explanation for what these seemingly random chords were doing.
My views on the Neapolitan, French +6, German +6 and Italian +6th chords may not be revolutionary, but I believe them to be helpful. Moreover, before I can get into these chords, I need to explain the differences between how Classical Traditional Tonal Harmony and Jazz Theory interprets a chord symbol. This will help immensely in better explaining why Neapolitan, French, German, and Italian 6th chords could use some updating.
When analyzing classical music it is universally accepted across the board to use Roman Numerals to indicate the chord quality (upper case for major and lower case for minor) as well as the interval or distance of a chord from the root of the scale. Additionally, Arabic numerals will be placed next to the Roman Numerals when indicating an inversion of a chord as well as whether or not the 7th chord tone is present.
For example if you are in the key of D major and are moving from an “f#” minor chord in first inversion, to an “A” major chord in root position the symbols would be iii6 to V. (see below)
As you can see above, the f# minor triad is relayed to you with a lower case iii and the number 6 indicating first inversion. The 6 indicates first inversion because when you invert the root into the octave above, it creates an interval of a sixth from the 3rd to the root above it. The “A major triad” has an upper case V underneath it. This indicates a major chord quality, and there is no number next to the Roman numeral, which means there is no inversion and the chord is in root position.
If you were to add the 7th chord tone to each chord from above, the Arabic numbers change a little bit.
The V7 chord has just a seven next to it to indicate that the 7th chord tone is present and the chord is in root position.
The “f# minor 7” proceeding it, in first inversion, is a little more involved in explaining it’s chord symbols.
When four chord tones are present in the first, second or third inversion, it creates an interval of a 6th between the bass and the top most note. The inner voices are different from each other from first to third inversion. Technically a chord in first inversion is considered a 6,5,3, a seventh chord in second inversion is a 6,4,3 and seventh chord in third is a 6,4,2.
However, those are long and unnecessary titles for each inversion. First inversion 7th chords are the only ones that form an interval of a sixth, and a fifth from the 3rd of the chord in the bass, so the symbol is truncated to 6,5. The same goes for a seventh chord in second and third inversion.
A second inversion seventh chord is truncated to 4,3 (for the intervals of a 4th and a 3rd formed in it’s inner voices) and a third inversion seventh chord is inverted to 4,2 or just 2.(for the intervals of a 4th and a 2nd formed in it’s inner voices) Since each inner voice of the inversions of the seventh chord are unique, we can just refer to the inner voice intervals when giving a chord a chord symbol and it’s understood which inversion a chord is in.
Below is a chart for all of the Arabic Numbers representing which inversions your triad or seventh chords can have.
Traditional Harmony chords use Arabic numbers next to Roman Numerals to define chord quality, inversions, and how many chord tones are present. The numbers next to Traditional Harmony Roman Numeral Chords will never ever be anything other than an indication of intervals.
Now that we’ve established the basics of Trad Harm chord analyzation, I can now show an inherent flaw with this system. Moreover, this is why Neapolitan, French, German, and Italian +6 chords confused me, and why Jazz Theory mostly does a better job of explaining them.
In Jazz Harmony, there is not a universally standard way to name a chord. Jazz Theory uses a conglomerate of symbols including Roman Numerals as well as just writing out what the chord is.
Nonetheless, the differences from one persons symbol to the next aren’t so extreme that one could not decipher what chord is intended. For example, I’ve seen a G minor seven chord written 3 different ways. Gmin7, Gm7, G minor 7. The same goes for a major 7 chord. (GMaj7, GM7, G major 7)
As you can see from above the differences are slight and easy to figure out and there are probably more iterations than the ones I have above. Now when a Jazz Composer wants to indicate an inversion, a slash mark with whatever chord tone he or she wants will be put next to a chord. For example if you wanted a G minor 7 with Bb in the bass, you could write that Gm7/Bb.
Now the one extra thing that a Jazz written chord will do that a Trad Harm won’t is indicate tensions. (ex-tensions) A number next to a chord in Jazz Theory tells the performer to play tensions not inversions. If you saw a chord that said C maj 9 its telling you that a “D” needs to be added to the C maj chord. It’s quite a common practice to drop the 5th of the chord to make sure that the 7th, 3rd, root, and tension is heard to not confuse the listeners ear. This technique is used on all chord qualities.
The “7th” of the chord is not always listed next to the chord if tensions are present as the 7th chord tone quality is implied by what the chord quality is. If you see G maj 9 then you know that 7th is a major seventh because the “major” tells you that it is. If you see G min 9 then you know to use a b7 because the minor tells you that it is. If you don’t see a major or minor indicator between the note and the number then it is considered dominant. The chord G7 tells you that you have a b7 on a major triad. The other two words you may see is “dim” which is diminished and “Aug” or which means augmented or to sharp the 5th of the chord.
Here is where the two styles of theory intersect and where I believe Jazz Theory does a better job of explaining the Neapolitan, French, German, Italian +6 chords.
In Jazz theory the “+” sign also means augmented “Aug” but is only applied to the 5th of a dominant 7 chord. Jazz would never tell you to “+” the 6th as it knows that it just becomes the b7 of a chord which is also a chord tone. I completely understand that Trad Harm is coming from an interval point of view and that when you see “+6” you’re telling the performer to raise the note up by a half step.
However, I think that the +6 visually implies a different tonality than what’s heard. These chords are performing a dominant function and they should be telling your brain with your eyes as well as your ears that is what it is doing. Essentially defining a chord with a +6 is like using B# in the key of C. Although you can use it, it doesn’t make sense to.
Some may not agree with my analyzation of these chords but I argue that the ear does not lie! If we apply Jazz Theory to these classically used chords, we come to find out that the Neapolitan, The German +6, and Italian +6 chords are what’s called Substitute Dominants.
The French +6 chord is just a Secondary Dominant in second inversion with a b5 or(#11) instead of a 5th. It is is derived from the melodic minor scale and is heard as V/V. It is considered an altered chord in Jazz. When properly used this chord will only be found as a secondary dominant in minor keys. (I’m not going to go into secondary dominants as I’ve already covered that in a previous article which is linked above. I will only talk about the Neapolitan, German, and Italian as Sub Dominants)
In Jazz Theory a dominant chord can be Substituted (Sub Dominant) for another dominant chord that it shares the same tritone with. For example a C7 chord forms a tritone with “E” and “Bb” or the 3rd and 7th of the C7 chord. The “Bb” and “E” can also be found in a Gb7, yet the “Bb” and the “E” have changed chord tone position. The “Bb” is the 3rd and the “E” is the b7.That is what the Neapolitan, Italian+6, and German+6 chords are doing…acting like sub dominants.
In the case of the Neapolitan chord, classical composers didn’t use a “b7” with it and it’s traditionally in first inversion when found in classical compositions. However, that doesn’t mean the Neapolitan does not still function as a substitute dominant for the “V” of whatever key you’re in. If we add a b7 to the Neapolitan in the key of “D” we find out that the 3rd and the 7th of Eb7 are the same as the 7th and 3rd of A7.
The German+6 and the Italian+6 are the same thing except the Italian+6 is missing the 5th of the chord. The Italian+6 missing its 5th plays no significance in it being different from a German+6. The German and Italian both share a tritone with the secondary dominant V/V and they both want to resolve to the five chord of the diatonic key. No matter how you slice the Neapolitan, German+6 and Italian+6, they want to resolve down to the chord below it by half step just like the substitute dominants do. These chords lay outside of the diatonic key so you create tonal uncertainty if you don’t resolve down by half step.
This leaves me with one last observation. If classical composers had realized it, they would have known they had a whole slew of substitute dominants at their disposal. Who knows what their music would have sounded like had they been aware?
For whatever reason classical composers didn’t use sub dominant chords (sub V7) chords that were available for the ii, iii or, IV, or vi. To my knowledge classical composers only used Sub V/V and Sub V/I.
(Sub V/vii is the same chord as V/V that is why it is not listed)
Keep in mind that substitute dominant chords can be used in minor scales as well. However, I will let you figure out what additional substitute dominant chords are available for those.
Although classical composers were profoundly important and influential to music it’s also good to note that they were human. Of course they were geniuses but they weren’t perfect. I believe it’s a good idea to expand on those ideas from those who came before and be open to others who wish to add to your ideas. I believe that’s how true knowledge is gained!
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