The Nashville Number System is a popular method of music notation. It uses an abbreviated form of notation on a chart to show the chords for each note in a song. The Nashville number system was created by Neal Matthews for use with The Jordanaires, a vocal quartet formed in 1948.
It was developed further by Charlie McCoy and other Nashville session musicians. The Nashville Number System is used mainly in the United States and is popular among guitarists and other instrumentalists. Chet Atkins and Tommy Emmanuel helped popularize the system by using it in their albums and live performances.
While there is no such thing as a Nashville number (it’s not an actual note), it can be helpful to think of it like one. At the beginning of the song, the number sets up which notes will be used in the chord progression. This means that, as a musician, you can quickly and easily transpose a song to any key you want. Nothing else in the notation needs to be changed if the key changes.
The Nashville number system works in any key, and it straightforwardly displays the song’s structure. The numbers help musicians understand the form of a song and also explain how many measures comprise each section of the song. It’s easy to understand any chord progression.
One of the best things about the Nashville number system is it’s widely used. Many music publishers use it, as do many session musicians and songwriters. If you want to learn to play or write songs, it’s a good learning system.
Nashville Number System charts are not key specific: the “1” chord is the tonic chord no matter what key the artist chooses. So, if a song is in the key of C, but the performer wants to play it in D, they would still use a “1” chord. The C major chord would become a D chord. This also makes it easy to change the key of a song without changing the chords.
This relationship between notes and numbers is the basic idea behind the NNS.
For major scales, 1 (root chord), 4, and 5 are major chords. 2, 3, and 6 are minor chords, and 7 is a diminished chord.
The Nashville number system uses a dash (-) after the chord number to indicate a minor chord. Chord progressions are easy to write and understand in this system. We will start by looking at natural chords, meaning chords only containing notes in the C Major scale.
The 1 chord is a C chord. This is a major chord (C-E-G). Since one, four, and five are major chords, it’s easy to write a blues progression. The 4 chord is an F major chord (F-A-C) and the 5 is a G major Chord (G-B-D).
Now that we understand basic chords, we can use the number system to make more interesting chord progressions. Altered chords contain notes outside of the major scale, and there are modifiers to designate these chords. If songs are in minor keys, still notate based on the relative major key. So if a song is in A minor and contains the chords A Minor, D Minor, E Minor, you would not write this as 1-, 4-, and 5-. Instead, it is 6-, 2-, and 3-.
For rhythm, each measure receives one or more numbers. For a 12-bar blues, each bar gets one number. When more than one number is used in a measure, these numbers are underlined. You can add lines on top of the numbers to show how the beats are divided.
Here’s a notation key. People write these differently and there are more symbols to learn, but this is a good start:
- ( 1 2m9) or 1 2m9 = (More than one chord in a measure) or More than one chord in a measure
- ♦ above or surrounding a note = Whole note
- Arrows are used how a tie is used to connect multiple measures
- X = Dominant 7
- ▲7, M7, or Maj7= Major 7
- -7, m7, or min7 = Minor 7
- ○ = Diminished
- ○7 = Diminished 7
- ○M7 = Diminished Major 7
- Ø7 = Half-Diminished 7
- + = Augmented
- Sharp and flat are used normally
- sus4 = Suspended Fourth
- 5/2 = Inversion. In the key of C major, this is a G major chord/second inversion. G is the fifth note of the C major scale. The two represents second inversion (D-G-B) with the fifth in the bass
The diagrams below outline these ideas. A fully-notated example of the Nashville number system is below the diagrams, followed by some video instructions.
Here is a complicated example. Source: studio-interns.com