Nashville Number System
We’ll start with our quick-start guide to understanding and working with The Nashville Number System as a way to transcribe the musical notation and arrangement of a song.
This is an article in-progress, so check back as this article will expand over time as we add more content and get more in-depth on this subject.
Nashville Number System and Using Free Country Loops
Many of our loops, in particular in our song packages, the loops list the chord progression, that is to say, the chord changes in the file name. It may have something like: “I-IV-I-V.” In our loop file names, we use roman numerals for chord/note intervals to make it easier to spot that we are referring to notes or chords, and not say, the tempo or lick number. Getting back to: I-IV-I-V, that would refer to: “1 chord to the 4 chord to the 1 chord to the 5 chord” when using the Nashville Number System. A basic understanding of the Nashville Number System will be very useful, especially if you might need to pitch shift the loops and transpose them to other keys. We have many guides and charts on the sites in the GUIDES section to help you figure out scales, notes, numbers and how much to pitch shift loops to get them into your desired key.
What is the Nashville Number System?
The short answer for now, (and we’ll get into more details later), it’s an easy way to transcribe a song musically by using numbers instead of note and chord names. It’s a musical “short hand” developed by Nashville Studio musicians as a quick way map out a song so that other musicians can read it and play it. It’s a easier than reading standard music notation, but it does use some of the terms and symbols of standard musical notation as well.
Why do I need to know Nashville Number System?
If you are a Songwriter and Producer working in the field of Country Music, it is very useful to have a basic understanding of the Nashville Number System because it helps you communicate more easily with other producers, musicians and songwriters when discussing chords, chord changes and arrangements. You will be able to speak the language of Nashville musicians and songwriters. You don’t need to be an expert at writing out number charts either. Not at all. Simply understanding the meaning when someone says: “Four chord to the five chord” will serve you well. The purpose of the first part of this article is to give you that basic understanding.
How does it work?
The numbers come from the intervals of the 7 notes of the major scale. For example, in the key of C there are these seven notes in this order: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, (and it repeats starting at the next C). In the C major scale, C is the first note or 1; D is the second note or 2, E is the third note or 3, and so on up to B which is note 7.
If we are writing or playing a song in the key of C, we substitute these numbers for our chord and note names. The “C” chord becomes 1, the “F” chord becomes 4, and the “G” chord becomes 5. So instead of saying our song goes from C for 2 bars, F for 1 bar and G for 1 bar; we say: It goes from the 1 chord to the 4 chord then 5 chord. The beauty of this is if we have to change keys, no problem. In another key the note intervals are still the same. Our song will still go 1-4-5. Let’s look at the key of G. The G major scale is: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#. In G, the G chord is 1, the C chord is 4 and the D chord is 5. So in G, the chord changes are G, C, D. But using the number system we don’t have to remember the note names for the “G” scale or any scale in all the different keys. All we need to know is that our song changes from a 1 to a 4 to a 5 chord and that’s the same in any key we transpose it to. Do you see how much easier that is?
Buy WHY would I change the key of my song?
You are probably wondering, if you wrote the song in G, why would you need to worry about needing to move it to another key? There are several reasons you might need to do that. What if you are hiring a session (demo) singer to sing your song? Every singer has a unique voice unto themselves, therefore, a key that works well for one singer is not the best key for another. You may have written the song in a key you can sing it in, but it may be too low or too high for the professional studio singer you hire to sing on your demo (or for that matter, a recording artist that may want to record it.). The solution is to move the key of the song to the key that best suits the singer who will sing it on a recording. That’s where the number system comes in handy. When you get to the studio, you may have to experiment with a few different keys to find the “sweet spot” for the singer. If you have written the song out, or can simply explain the song using the Nashville Number System, it makes communication with the singer and musicians clearer and makes the task of transposing keys easy.
Here’s an example in practical usage:
You wrote your song in G. You found out the studio (demo) singer needs the song in B flat. You may not be able to transpose the song in your head to the key of B flat to be able to discuss the chords and any chord changes. In fact, perhaps you can’t think in flat keys very well in general. But if you are speaking in numbers, you don’t have to. G is the 1 chord in G because G is the first note of the G major scale in the key of G. B flat is the 1 chord in the key of B flat. So instead of saying G or B flat, you simply say: “The one chord.” No matter what key you move it to; the one chord is always the one chord. It refers to the first note of the musical scale in the particular key. What if it’s a different chord? Not the root chord G, what if it’s C. In the key of G, C is the 4 chord. E flat is the 4 chord in B flat. Again, instead of saying chord names, we simply say: “The four chord.”
You might find that you may not have composed the song in the best key for yourself to sing either. Using the Nashville Number System, it makes it easier for you to experiment with moving the song to other keys without having to think too hard!
Summary of Part One
At this point, if you understand the above, you have enough of a basic understanding to talk about the notes and chords in your song as numbers instead of names. You can refer to our GUIDES section of this web site and find our Nashville Number System Scales Chart, which gives you the numbers for every major scale/key.
If you want go deeper into this subject and learn more about the Nashville Number System and learn how to write out charts, chord symbols and more… read on.
We will be adding to this article in the future, the next installment will be a continuation of the topic below…
Major and minor scales
In Nashville Number System, songs are generally “charted” (This is the Nashville term for transcribing or writing out the song) in major keys, even if the song is in a minor key. Again, keeping things simple. The way they do it is to write it out in the relative major scale of the minor key. I know I just said a mouthful and ventured off into music theory speak for a second there. Don’t worry, I’ll break that down as simple as possible in a bit here. I just wanted you to be aware of it. Before I can do that, I will have to explain some basic music theory about major and minor scales. Which will follow…
Learning the Nashville Number System
Besides following our articles about the Nashville Number System, let me recommend the best book on the subject. I learned the Nashville Number System from this book:
The Nashville Number System by Chas Williams is the definitive book on the subject. There is also a version with a CD of the sample songs that are charted. I’d recommend getting this version, as it allows you to train your ear and practice what you’ve learned by writing your own charts. The book is very straight forward, the instruction is clear and concise with lots of diagrams. There are scores of Nashville Number System charts, not only by the author, but by various seasoned musicians too. You see, there are some basic ground rules to charts that everyone follows, but also these are all handwritten and styles vary slightly. The book is an easy read. You will breeze right through it and have the Nashville Number System down pat in no time. I had it down quickly and only a couple of hours later I was able to write charts that I gave to studio musicians who had no problem playing to the arrangements. I still couldn’t do that writing standard music notation, believe me. The Nashville Number System is the way to go!