Nashville Numbers System – Cool or Crazy?

So what is the Nashville number system and why does Nashville use it?

The Nashville number system is a way of writing chord charts that can be easily transposed into any key.  So why is this important?  Let’s say you are working with a singer and have a song in the key of G.  You have the band set up ready to record and the singer realizes the song is in the wrong key and wants to try it in F.  If you are using traditional charts you have to stop the session and quickly write out new charts in F.  With the Nashville Numbers System the players can easily play the track in any key without having to rewrite the chart.

What if song you are working on in the key of G has the following chord progression:  G  C  em  D.  The singer wants to change to the key of F so the new chords are:  F  Bb  dm C.  With the Nashville Numbers System the progression is written:  1  4  6m  5.  Sometimes you will also see the chords represented as roman numerals:  I  IV  vi  V.

Here is a quick explanation of how the numbering system works.

Chords are built by stacking up notes in scale.  The C scale has the following notes  C D E F G A B C.  If you take every other note and stack them up you get the chords that are in the Key of C.

The first chord or 1 chord (sometimes written with a roman numeral I) is:
C = CEG

The second chord in the key of C is a D minor chord (it can be written as a 2m 2- or ii):
dm = DFA

If you keep stacking the notes in the same manner you get the following chords for the key of C:

C dm em F G am Bdim C  which is the same as:

1  2m  3m  4  5  6m  7dim  1  which can also be written as:

I  ii  iii  IV  V  vi  vii  I

Major chords are represented by numbers.  ex:  4 or IV

Minor chords are represented with either a lowercase m next to the number or a – sign next to the number:  Ex:  2m or ii or 2-

There are a couple other Nashville Number Systems conventions you should know.  When you see a diamond around a number, it indicates you are to hit the chord and hold it.  It is the same thing as a fermata.

A chord is assumed to take up a whole measure.  If two chords have a line under them they get two beats each.

These are the basics of the Nashville Number System.  It is a great way to write universal charts that can easily be transposed into any key.

Action Item

The next time you make a chart give the Nashville Numbers System a try, it can be confusing at first but once you work with if for awhile you will quickly come to understand it’s benefits.

Here is an infographic on the Nashville Numbers System.

nashville numbers system infographic

You can download a PDF of the Nashville Numbers System Infographic here:

About the author

Tim Brown

Tim Brown, the artist behind Brown House Creative and SmartMusicIncome.com is an award winning producer and composer based in Nashville, TN (Music City USA ). Tim is a prolific writer whose music has been used by a number of his high profile clients, including Monday Night Football, The Olympics, ABC Sports, and A&E Biography, to name a few.

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