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Advanced Music Theory and the Neapolitan Chord

Advanced Music Theory and the Neapolitan Chord is part 4 in a series on How to Write a Song. This introduces us to chord substitution in songwriting. Another name for this is modal interchange.

Modal interchange is when we borrow from other scales and use chords outside of the diatonic scale. This is done sometimes to create interest in songwriting and composition. There is a simple method on how to do this. There are some rules to follow to begin with. However, once you are comfortable, the sky is the limit!

You need to know your diatonic harmony in order for this to make sense and be useful. To review diatonic harmony visit: C Major Chord and C Guitar Chord.

I conclude this page with popular chord progressions that use the techniques and advanced music theory discussed on this page.



First let's start with the neapolitan chord. It is simply a bII (flat 2) major chord generally substituted for a ii chord or IV chord in a minor key. Composers over the centuries have made the neapolitan chord substitution to add some flavor to a typical chord progression, but it can also be used in pop music.

For example look at the following progression:

i - iv - v - i or Amin - Dmin - Emin - Amin

The neapolitan chord substitution would be the bII chord, which in this case is Bb Major, in place of the iv chord or Dmin chord.

The new progression would be:

i - bII - v - i or Amin - BbMaj - Emin - Amin

The neapolitan chord is always a major chord and can be used in a Major key as well, but the neapolitan chord doesn't have the same effect as when used in a minor key.


Below are the 7 modes with their corresponding chords built on top of them. To review the modes visit A Minor Scale.


modes and modal interchange

The two most popular modes are Ionian (which is the typical major scale) and Aeolian (which is the typical natural minor scale).

Modal interchange is borrowing from a parallel scale. Generally Major scale borrow from parallel minor scales and vice versa. This is not to be confused with the relative minor scale which is just a major scale starting on the 6th degree.

Confused? Let's try it...

Let's take a blues progression in Ionian. In the chart above everything is a 7th chord but if you take away the 7ths, you have normal triads. So (I maj7) or (C maj7) becomes (C maj).

Ok, so if you had I, IV and V or in this case C, F, and G, you could choose a different chord to spice up the progression. How about if we borrow the IV- (4 minor) chord from Aeolian. Now we have I, IV- and V or C, Fmin and G.

You always borrow from the same chord number. How about if we borrow the I chord from Aeolian as well? Now we have Cmin, Fmin and G. The world is your oyster! Experiment! Come up with the NEW SOUND!

Can you figure out where the neapolitan chord is borrowed from? Yes, the bII chord is from Phrygian or Locrian.


Before we dive into progressions with modal interchange, lets look at some songs with progressions that aren't in your typical Ionian or Major key.


Aeolian is the relative minor scale to Ionian (major). It's the same scale starting on the 6th degree so you it's the same chords just starting on the vi chord. So, the chords are really this: vi VII I ii iii IV V. However, if we make the first chord the I chord it should really look like this: i, ii, bIII, iv, v, bVI, bVII.

*In these tunes the key is Aeolian (natural minor). There is no modal interchange but the chord symbols change because it is minor. Notice the chords, i-, bIII, v-, bVI and bVII. Refer to the image above for symbols.

i - bVII - bVI - bVI (tonic - dominant - subdominant)
Am - G - F - F
Stairway to Heaven (coda of song) - Led Zeppelin
Dm - C - Bb (chorus)
Sultans of Swing - Dire Straits

i - bVII - bIII - bVI (tonic - dominant - tonic - subdominant)
Am - G - C - F
Breakaway (verse) - Kelly Clarkson
Gm - F - Bb - Eb
Breakeven (verse) - The Script

I - bVII - I - bVII - IV (tonic - dominant - tonic - dominant - subdominant)
D - C - D - C - G
Suddenly I See (verse)
IV - V - iii - vi (subdominant - dominant - tonic - tonic)
G - A - F#m - Bm
Suddenly I See (prechorus)
vi - iii - IV - I (tonic - tonic - subdominant - tonic)
Bm - F#m - G - D
Suddenly I See (chorus) - JT Tunstall


Here are two pop tunes that are in the dorian mode. I have left the chord symbols as if it's in Ionian or Major to avoid confusion.


ii - IV- I - V (subdominant - subdominant - tonic - dominant)
Em - G - D - A
Boulevard of Broken Dreams (verse)
bVII - IV - I - V (dominant - subdominant - tonic - dominant)
C - G - D - A
Boulevard of Broken Dreams - Green Day

ii - iii - IV - V (subdominant - tonic - subdominant - dominant)
D(m) - Em7 - F - G
Shut Your Eyes - Snow Patrol

chord substitution and neapolitan chord


*In the following progressions, bVII is borrowed from the aeolian mode.

I - bVII - IV - I (tonic - dominant - subdominant - tonic)
Manic Depression - Jimi Hendrix
Takin' Care of Business - Bachman Turner Overdrive
Fortunate Son - Creedance Clearwater Revival

I - bVII - IV - IV (tonic - dominant - subdominant)
D - C - G - G
Sweet Home Alabama - Lynyrd Skynyrd

V - IV - I - V (dominant - subdominant - tonic - dominant)
Sweeter (verse)
I - bVII - IV - I
Sweeter (chorus) - Gavin Degraw

*The following song is actually in Bb minor but easier to see in Am

vi - ii - V - I (tonic - subdominant - dominant - tonic)
Am - Dm - G - C
IV - bIIV - I - V (subdominant - dominant - tonic - dominant)
F - Bb - C - G
Dirty Work (verse)
I - IV - vi - bVII (tonic - subdominant - tonic - dominant)
C - F - Am - Bb
Dirty Work (chorus) - Steely Dan

*Ingrid Michaelson borrows the Ebm chord from the parallel Aeolian scale in the verse below.

I - v - vi - V (tonic - dominant - tonic - dominant)
Bb - (Ebm) - Gm - F
End of the World (verse)
I - vi - IV - V (tonic - tonic - subdominant - dominant)
Bb - Gm - Eb - F
End of the World (chorus) - Ingrid Michaelson

*Kelly Clarkson borrows the D from the parallel Ionian (Major) scale in the prechorus below.

i - bVII - IV - bVI - bVII
Am - G - D - F - G
breakaway (prechorus)

Hopefully your knowledge of advanced music theory has increased by understanding the neapolitan chord, chord substitution and modal interchange.

Continue to Part 5, Stairway to Heaven Chords

Return to Top of Neapolitan Chord

Return to How to Write a Song

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