I have a couple of questions regarding this passage. Have labelled the bars in question ''1'', ''2'' and ''3''. The stave in question is second from bottom (directly above ''N6??'').

We are in G minor, in bar ''1'' we have a long A flat, but we instantly seem to return to G minor afterwards, so this doesn't seem like a modulation to EflatM or Cm. Under the A flat there is a C in the bass, which might suggest N6, however the chord does not move to chord V but to chord i. Can N6 chords work this way?

Bonus question: At the beginning of bar ''3'' we seem to have V7- can the circled E flat be interpreted as a flat 9? There is an E natural on the very next beat in the bass, does this affect the note above?

thanks for your time!

Ed enter image description here


The chord needs to be interpreted in context. Take a look a couple bars before. After the strong arrival on V in the first bar of the first fully visible system in the photo, the piece launches into a descending sequence.

The sequence (as noted by the figures 6 and 7-6 in the first bar) was clearly conceptualized as simple descending parallel "first inversion" chords. In Roman numerals, I suppose one could write: VI6, v6, iv6, III6, ♭II6, i6, but that's relatively meaningless as these chords aren't functional. They're just parallel sixth chords, which are frequently used in baroque music to generate simple sequence progressions.

It's a little more complex than that, as there's a bit of ambiguity as to the identity of the "chord" in the second half of each bar. According to the bass figures and my sequential interpretation, most of the "chord tones" occur on the offbeats. That's not unheard of, but it is a bit unusual. So, there's a bit of wavering between whether the 6th or 5th above the bass may be the "real chord note" in how listeners might perceive it, but that's okay. (It's especially okay considering the looks of this piece, since it was likely written before Roman numerals were used for analysis and before triadic harmony was viewed the way we do today.)

As to whether the chord in question is a "Neapolitan sixth," well sure, by the pitches in it, it is. But it doesn't resolve in the standard fashion because it's in the middle of the sequence. Clearly the A♭ occurs here because it's a standard pitch inflection in minor to have a lowered second scale degree, especially when paired with the other notes here to create a "Neapolitan sixth."

Regardless, the bar in question doesn't have a consonant fifth above the bass in the second half of the bar, so the latter chord is more clearly i6. Again, though, the way a piece like this was composed wouldn't focus on that moment (or any "chord"), but rather see the descending sequence continue to force the bass downward in the next bar, creating a continuous G-F-E♭-D-C-B♭-A-G-F♯ bass line that finally arrives on the tritone (F♯-C) on the second beat in the next bar, a tritone that resolves ultimately on the G-B♭ on the second beat of the last bar in that system. (All of that is immediately followed by yet another sequence, by the way.)

So, if you want to think more along the lines of how baroque composers would have conceived this, that's a bit of a snapshot, rather than worrying about Roman numerals and any "function." The first truly active functional sonority in that phrase likely arrives with the tritone I mentioned. (This is roughly in line with Michael Curtis's broader harmonic interpretation too, as the i6 never really "comes into focus," instead passing along from the N6 eventually to the tritone in the next bar and the implied V.)

As for the circled E♭... well, note that the melodic pattern is exactly the same as began the previous bar. In the first iteration, you seem to have interpreted the sonority as implying iio, which is fine. But the "bigger picture" here is that the composer is reiterating the same melodic motive with increased harmonic tension. The first iteration might be thought of as a iio or maybe an incomplete V♭9, particularly with the F♯ in the melody, but the second iteration has a more clear "dominant" disposition with the D in the bass, implying a V♭9. Again, this is all to create tension and then resolve to i, rather than returning to the tritone of the previous bar.

  • thanks for yet another great answer! You've definitely cleared this up for me. I didnt know that lowering the second scale degree was a common practice in harmonic, natural or melodic minor. I don't suppose you could recommend any books/ resources on harmony? I have one arriving today : Bach Chorale Harmonisation and Instrumental counterpoint, by Malcolm Boyd. – EdB123 Aug 29 '20 at 11:11
  • @EdB123: I'm not sure exactly what sort of resources you're looking for on harmony; there are obviously a huge number depending on what perspective you're looking for. Anyhow, the flat 2 scale degree is just a variant that for predominants that creates the so-called Neapolitan chord; it's more common in minor than in major. Scales are an abstraction that don't necessarily tell you what pitches commonly occur in common practice music. E.g., one of the most common chromatic notes in any key is sharp 4 as a leading tone to 5, but it doesn't appear in standard major or minor scales. – Athanasius Aug 30 '20 at 16:11
  • Hi Athanasius- well you seem to have a very good grip on harmony so maybe I could read something that you have found useful? Back to the piece- been looking again at that ii chord and indeed must be a V7flat 9 down to the fsharp in the top! This would make it a second inversion chord. I have been taught that this is only okay in the cases of passing 64s (where the bass note is the middle of a set of three moving by step) and cadential 64s- so is this a sort of passing 64 with a rest instead of the first note? Thanks! – EdB123 Sep 2 '20 at 14:54
  • @EdB123: second inversion chords occur frequently with seventh (and ninth) chords and are not subject to as many restrictions as 6/4 triads. They still often have a "passing" function on weaker beats, but not necessarily. The chord identity at the beginning of that bar is a little "loose" (to put it mildly). Personally, I think it's important to think of harmonic function in terms of what you actually hear--at the beginning of that bar, you can't know it's a V9: it sounds like maybe a iio, and it's only with the strong tritone in the middle of the bar that the function becomes really clear. – Athanasius Sep 2 '20 at 21:03

Ab7 to Gm works as the tritone in Ab7 is the same as in D7 (Gb and F# enharmonically). It's not as common in classical style as in pop and jazz but it does occur (I think it's a tritone substitution.) Classically, one often goes through the I64 and V7 after the Neapolitan but both resolutions work fine.

  • thanks! Yes, I didn't consider the tritone substitution as I didn't think it was used in this era of music! Any thoughts on the Vflat 9 bar?? thanks, Ed – EdB123 Aug 28 '20 at 13:51
  • Where is the Ab7? The chord is not a dominant seventh chord. – Michael Curtis Aug 28 '20 at 14:20
  • I thought I saw an enharmonic representation. Maybe not. – ttw Aug 28 '20 at 18:53
  • this is a figured bass exercise. So, if i saw fit, I could write in the figure which would make that chord a dominant 7- was just working out the harmony first. – EdB123 Aug 28 '20 at 23:55

It is a neopolitan sixth! A flattened ii, 1st inversion.
Points about recognising them:

  • melody of a-flat–g–f# often occurs. Also interval diminished 3rd can be made of the notes around it.
  • you're looking for flattened supertonic, tonic, leading-note (usually in succession)
  • it is often cadential: occurs at / near cadence. Often a tonic 64 chord follows.
  • as stated look for a 1st inversion chord.
  • occurs usually in a minor key.
  • (not necessarily in the theory books) usually a flat chord e.g. I always think Db as N6.
  • Thanks Owain! Yes, this is all true, but it was my understanding that the N6 had a predominant function. I can see how an N6 to i64 would be very close to this, however that isn't the case here as the i chord is in first inversion. Is it possible that this is a tritone substitution? – EdB123 Aug 28 '20 at 13:48
  • I only understand what you have as the N6, not really modulating but a passing modulation. I understand tritone substitution as really reserved for Jazz, though no disrespect to seeing it in classical music. By predominant, you're right it's not happening here. I'm quite sure it's an N6 IMO. – user70304 Aug 28 '20 at 15:36

I think you can look at this two ways:

You have the sound of a Neapolitan chord with the A flat above C. The standard pre-dominant function is avoided when it moved to Gm: i6. The fact that it avoids the pre-dominant function isn't so much a contradiction, but a confirmation. It wouldn't create the expectation if it didn't sound as a Neapolitan in the first place.

The other way to look at it is from a higher harmonic level. If you regard all of measure 2 and the first have of measure 3 as a long arpeggiation of a dominant chord, and with some octave displacement the bass of C, Bb, A treating the i6 as a passing harmony, then you do have the N6 as a pre-dominant to V9.

  • thanks for this great answer! Just struggling to find the 'octave displacement'- ? – EdB123 Aug 29 '20 at 11:03
  • In the bass. It leaps up a seventh from Bb to A rather than a step down. That sort of disguises the simple descending line. – Michael Curtis Aug 31 '20 at 14:39

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