The Nashville Number System Explained

The Nashville number system is a method of music transcription, developed for musicians with rudimental musical knowledge. The system works in the way that chords are replaced with numbers, which allows musicians to learn the chord progression of a song, without relying on notes and music sheets. In other words, this system shows a neutral key of a song, which can later be played in any other key.

Another strength of this system is its flexibility. In other words, it allows musicians to apply all kinds of chord colors but to use just the numbers, whether it’s about major, minor, 7th, diminished, or any other kind of chord.

This is a universal transcribing method, which became popular mostly because of its simplicity, because of the fact that anyone who has the most basic knowledge of music theory can use it. That’s why you should learn how it works at once. The explanation is coming in the following paragraphs.

Why is the Nashville Number System Useful?

The Nashville number system is very easy to read, while it’s very easy to change the key of a song without any need for a new transcription. All they need to do is to state a new key and playing can start right away.

How Do You Read Nashville Number Charts?

Reading these charts is super easy. The system is based on scales, so each number represents one degree. If we take C major scale, for example, the chart would go like this:

C – 1

D – 2

E – 3

F – 4

G – 5

A – 6

B – 7

If we take a typical major blues progression in the key of C, which goes C-F-G, the numbers would be 1 4 5. So, if we take a situation where C is too low for your singer, or the producer wants to change the progression for any other reason, the whole process is extremely simple. The only thing that’s required is to state the new key, let’s say D, for example. In that case, the numbers would refer to degrees of the D major scale. It would go like this:

D – 1

E – 2

F# – 3

G – 4

A – 5

B – 6

C# – 7

This means that a typical blues (1 4 5) progression in the key of D would go D-G-A. It can’t go simpler than this.

Chord Qualities

With blues progression, things are super-easy. You can use major chords, dominant or minor – it’s hard to go wrong. However, things aren’t that simple with more complex progressions, typical for popular or jazz music. So, you may wonder which chords are major and which are minor.

It’s not as complicated as you may think. The system is based on typical triads, so all you need to do is to go through the whole scale by using these triads and you will find out all the chords. Each triad includes the root note, third, and fifth. So, chords of the C major scale would be:

1 – C E G, which are notes of the C major chord

2 – D F A, which are notes of the D minor chord

3 – E G B, which are notes of the E minor chord,

4 – F A C, which are notes of the F major chord

5 – G B D, which are notes of the G major chord

6 – A C E, which are notes of the A minor chord

7 – B D F, which are notes of the B dim chord

So, the chords of the C major scale are C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim. If a certain song features 1 6 2 5 progression, for example, the chords would be C, Am, Dm, and G.

By using the Nashville number system, you can easily play this progression in any key. Let’s take the D key once again – the chords would be D(1), Bm(6), Em(2), and A(5).

Some songs may have more colored chords, such as dominant 7th, major 7th, suspended 4th, etc. In that case, the progression would require additional symbols. For example, the chord progression from above may include few additional colors, with the following chords: Cmaj7, Dm7, Em7, and G7. In that case, a few more symbols would be required and you would see something like 1Δ7 67 27 57.

Here are some of the most common symbols used in the Nashville Number System:

7 – dominant 7th

Δ7 – major 7th

° – diminished

°7 – diminished seventh

°M7 – diminished major seventh

+ – augmented 5th

Ø or ø7 – half-diminished seventh

sus4 – suspended fourth

How is Rhythm Notated?

This system may also include rhythmic symbols. The most common are diamond and marcato. Both are usually written above the number. The diamond symbol means that the chord should ring the whole note. On the other hand, the marcato symbol indicates that the note should be choked or stopped. Jazz musicians also like to use “push” symbols for syncope.

Another thing you can often find in Nashville number progressions is underlining. For example, we can see something like 2 5 1. If we assume that 4/4 bars are standard, this would mean that the first two chords are played for two beats each, while the third chord in the progression is played four beats. Sometimes, beats can be measured in eights, but that’s usually stated at the beginning of the song.

Should I learn the Nashville number system?

So, the final question would be: “Should I learn the Nashville number system?”. The answer is definitely yes! You would benefit in many ways, starting from the fact that you would be able to play all the songs you know in every key you want.

Such quick shifts from one to another key during studio sessions or rehearsals seem like an indispensable value. The best thing about all this is that you need basic music theory knowledge only, and with just a little effort, it will make your life a lot easier when learning new songs.

Brian Clark is a multi-instrumentalist and music producer. He is passionate about practically all areas of music and he particularly enjoys writing about the music industry.

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