by Wayne Fugate
History and background
The Nashville Number System is an informal method of transcribing music by denoting the scale degree upon which a chord is built. Since the middle ages, musicians have substituted Roman numerals for chord letters. But in the late 1950’s Neil Matthews developed and formalized this concept into a simplified system of communicating chord changes for the Jordanaires to use in the studio. Charlie McCoy further enhanced and developed it. Over the years, The Nashville Numbering System has become the de-facto means for session musicians to communicate efficiently and effectively about the harmonic structure of tunes they might be hearing for the first time as they enter the studio.
The system uses Arabic numerals and does not explicitly state the quality (e.g., major or minor) of the chord. By writing chords as numbers, music may be transposed easily. In addition to numerals, special symbols and notations are sometimes used that are unique to the system. For example, a diamond signifies striking and holding a chord for the designated amount of time. As a simple system of transcription, The Nashville Number System can be used by anyone having only a rudimentary background in music theory and is often less intimidating to learn for musicians unfamiliar with traditional notation.
If a group of musicians has basic familiarity with this system, chord changes for virtually any given tune can be quickly communicated by simply ‘using the numbers.’ In the studio this can be a real time (money) saver and in live performance – especially in a jam – can be extremely helpful in keeping the musicians together so a tune doesn’t crash and burn because some folks know it and others don’t. Chord changes can be communicated in these situations simply by holding up the corresponding number of fingers or calling out the number to indicate the changes as they are about to happen. The system is flexible, and can be embellished to include more information (such as chord color or to denote a bass note in an inverted chord) as the user desires.
Another benefit of a Nashville Number System ‘chart’ is that it provides a roadmap for musicians to play any tune in any key without having to transpose or rewrite the chart into a different key to accommodate the needs of different performers. A chart’s numbers maintain their same relationship with a song’s chord changes regardless of the key.
For example, if Lynn Lipton sings “I Saw the Light” in the key of C and Mel Paskell sings the same song lower in the key of G, the same Nashville number chart of “I Saw the Light” would work for both Lynn’s and Mel’s performance since the numbers would remain the same regardless of key. This would not be true if the actual letter names for the chords were used in the chart … Lynn and Mel would each need their own chart. Another ancillary benefit of the Nashville Number System is that dictation and transcription of a song from a recording becomes easier because you don’t need to know the song’s key to write down the correct chord changes. This is especially nice for those of us not blessed with perfect pitch.
Don’t Be Scared
The Number System is relatively easy. You don’t have to know how to read music to learn how to write a number chart. Let’s look in more detail at how the system works.
As noted previously, the system uses numbers to designate chords built on steps of the major scale. So the ‘numbers’ for chords in the key of ‘C’ would be:
So, the chord progression C-Am-Dm-G7-C in the key of C would be represented as follows using the Nashville Number System:
Pretty easy, eh?
Here is a chart that will help you to quickly see what the numbers are for any chord in any key:
In a jazz or swing tune, the 7 chord will almost always be a ‘m7b5’ chord. However, in a bluegrass tune the “7” is typically a major chord, lowered one half step (flatted) from the 7 chord noted in the chart above, to become what some folks might refer to as a “mountain 7.” The opening bars of the tune “Wheel Hoss” offer a good example of the “mountain 7” at work as the chords move between G to F or … 1 to (flat or mountain) 7. The ‘2’ chord is another that might be major or minor depending on the tune. The ‘6’ and ‘3’ chords will almost always be minor chords and will usually be designated as such.
Don’t be scared off by the seeming fogginess of all of this. Most every chart I’ve ever seen (and that’s many of them) is very specific about making major, minor, extensions, alterations, etc. abundantly clear.
A Few Examples
Using the information above, a very simple Nashville chart for the tune “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” would look like this:
1 | 1| 1| 1|
1| 1| 1| 5| 5(7)
| 1| 1| 4| 4
| 1| 5| 1| 1 |
… And would correlate to the letter names of the chords like this:
| C | C | C | C |
| C | C | G | G7 |
| C | C | F | F |
| C | G| C | C |
The vertical lines between each chord represent ‘bar’ lines … just like you would see in standard notation. Therefore, if the tune is in 4/4 as is the case in the example above, the chord in each bar would be played for 4 beats.
To show you what a more involved chart might look like using the Nashville Numbering System, I’ve included one at the end of this article that I used recently in recording a CD of Bluegrass Gospel music for vocalist Diane McCoy. The CD will be released later this summer.
Hopefully, this article has given you a better understanding of the basics of The Nashville Number System. If you find this topic interesting and want to delve into it further, here are a few resources that that might help.
1. The Nashville Number System by Chas Williams
No one covers this topic as thoroughly as Chas does in his book and CD. This is a must have.
Here is the entire number system in a dial chart format offered for sale on Amazon. This could be useful for some.