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I've done some jazz rehearsals and while other members were discussing chords I overheard them talking about an 'Italian sixth', 'German sixth' and a 'French sixth.' I have no idea what they are referring to, it could just be the language (lingo jingo) of the musicians. So if anybody knows what they were referring to, what is an Italian sixth, German sixth and a French sixth? Is the term a broader thing? Example: There could be Italian sevenths too?

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These are tone combinations often used in classical music. They consist of a bass tone (usually a major third below the tonic), a major third above the bass, and an augmented sixth above the bass and some other tones. They are the same chord in major and minor. I'll use the key of C for examples.

The Italian Sixth is Ab-C-F#. It's written this way because of the usual resolution in classical music. This would be to G-B-D-G (The C resolves both directions here.) Note that the Ab and F# each move by half steps which makes is a strong melodic and harmonic motion. It's possible to resolve this chord to G-C-E-G before proceeding to the Dominant. These three chord have (in classical practice) a strongly Subdominant function (sometimes called a pre-dominant function).

The French Sixth has an added fourth above the bass: in C this gives Ab-C-D-F#. This collect can resolve the same way to either the Dominant in root position or the Tonic 6-4 thence to the Dominant. (In Jazz theory, this chord is a triton substitute for the Dominant and would resolve to the Tonic. In this case, the bass would be Db rather than Ab in the bass in the key of C. Classical music can do this but it isn't common.) This chord has two tritones which makes it strongly dissonant.

The German Sixth has an added perfect fifth above the bass. Again in C, this chord is Ab-C-Eb-F#. It generally resolves through the Tonic 64 to avoid parallels. The German Sixth is enharmonically identical to a Dominant seventh on Ab and could be resolved to Db (non-standard to not too uncommon.) This chord is also the Dominant of the Neapolitan Sixth (F-Ab-Db-F in C) and can be used as such.

In a cadence (like ii-V7-I or ii06-V7-I for Major or Minor respectively), these chords sound good between the ii chord and the V7 chord (or V chord) and one can eve have strings like ii6-It6-I64-V7-I which extends the cadence. (The chords are often notated as It6 Fr6 and Ge6.)

They are often approached from the Tonic, the minor Tonic, or the Minor Subdominant.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augmented_sixth_chord

This chord pattern can be used on other scale degrees. The chords are "rootless" in classical theory as they are perceived (by the theorists anyway) as arising from melodic rather than formal harmonic processes. They are not uncommon on a flattened second degree where they often proceed directly to the Tonic somewhat as in Jazz harmony.

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    In "common practice" harmonic analysis, the basic issue is that the two tritones with augmented fourths of C-F# and Gb-C are enharmonically the same notes, but with different structural functions. C-F# resolves onto B-G (as in the cadence D7 G) but Gb-C resolves onto F-Db (as in Ab7-Db). This is the same basic idea as "tritone substitution" in Jazz harmony, of course. Spelling or naming a German 6th in key C (with an F#) like an Ab7 chord (with a Gb) is just semi-literate notation IMHO. – user19146 Nov 1 '17 at 17:09
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    I would spell a German Sixth differently depending on its resolution. Both Beethoven and Schumann have examples of "punning" the Ge6 both ways. I don't know how they (or their editors) spelled them. – ttw Nov 1 '17 at 18:53
  • It's Ger. 6, not Ge. 6. – Maika Oshikko Sakuranomiya Dec 12 '18 at 1:04
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Good question!

In music theory, an augmented sixth chord contains the interval of an augmented sixth, usually above its bass tone. It is an altered chord that has subdominant (or predominant) function.

An Italian sixth is an augmented sixth chord with three notes, based on viio6/V. Let's suppose we are in the key of C major. The viio6/V chord is F♯dim/A. The Italian sixth chord of C major is F♯dim(♭♭3)/A♭. It contains the notes A♭ - C - F♯.

A French sixth is similar to the Italian, but with an additional tone between the third and the sixth note. It is based on V43/V. In C major, the French sixth chord contains the notes A♭ - C - D - F♯. Because the V43/V in this key is D7/A, the French sixth chord is D7(♭5)/A♭.

A German sixth is derived from viio65/V. In C major, the viio65/V is F♯dim7/A. The German sixth is A♭ - C - E♭ - F♯, which spells F♯dim7(♭♭3)/A♭.

They can also be inverted or in root position, as well.

Here are the inversions and the root position of the Italian sixth in C major:

  • F♯dim(♭♭3), root position, marked It. 53
  • F♯dim(♭♭3)/A♭, 1st inversion, marked It. 6
  • F♯dim(♭♭3)/C, 2nd inversion, marked It. 64

Here are the inversions of the French sixth in C major:

  • D7(♭5), root position, marked Fr. 7
  • D7(♭5)/F♯, 1st inversion, marked Fr. 65
  • D7(♭5)/A♭, 2nd inversion, marked Fr. 6
  • D7(♭5)/C, 3rd inversion, marked Fr. 42

Here are the inversions of the German sixth in C major:

  • F♯dim7(♭♭3), root position, marked Ger. 7
  • F♯dim7(♭♭3)/A♭, 1st inversion, marked Ger. 6
  • F♯dim7(♭♭3)/C, 2nd inversion, marked Ger. 43
  • F♯dim7(♭♭3)/E♭, 3rd inversion, marked Ger. 42
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    How common are some of these inversions? Also, what are your thoughts on calling these "first/second/third inversions"? My brain skips a bit when it sees "5 3" and "first inversion" next to each other for the Italian! – Richard Dec 12 '18 at 2:59
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    I'm most familiar with the Ger7 inversion. What book are you referencing? – Richard Dec 14 '18 at 18:44
  • Plus, the formal way is Ger. 7/5, not just 7. – Maika Oshikko Sakuranomiya Jan 5 at 3:06
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    If we're going that route, then the "formal" way is Ger 7/5/3. – Richard Jan 5 at 3:07

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