Music TheorySongwriting

Understanding the Nashville Number System

In today´s post I would like to introduce you to the Nashville Number System (also known under NNS). This chord notation method, which was first introduced in the late 1950ies by Neal Matthews, a vocalist and instrumentalist and member of the vocal group “the Jordanaires”, is a simplified method of writing down chord progressions without determining a key.

Why is it useful?

The method allows for savy musicians to easily transpose to another key, which is why it is being used a lot in Nashville and around the globe. The NNS is related to the Roman Numeral analysis, but uses Arabic numbers instead of Roman numbers. Also, the Nashville Number System allows for very cool ways to notate bass notes, chord inversions and rhythmic specifications, which makes it a great system for all kinds of musicians, including drummers and percussionists. It is useful for musicians from all all trades that do not necessarily know how to read music.

So how does it work?

Essentially the Nashville Number System requires a basic understanding  of major and minor scales and the corresponding chords along these scales (knowing which chords are majors, which are minors and which are 7th or diminished etc.).

Each note on the scale is assigned a number.

So if looking at a C major scale, the notes would be assigned as follows:

C D E F G A B

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

If we were to build the corresponding chords based on each of those “root notes”, these chords would be:

C d e F G a b

1 2- 3- 4 5 6- 7-

Traditionally capital  letters stand for major chords, small letters for minor chords.

To indicate a minor chord within the Nashville Number System, you simple add a “-” (minus) sign behind the chord number.

So far so good. If you were to shift to another key, e.g. the key of G the numbers would still apply and you could easily translate back as follows

1 2- 3- 4 5 6- 7º-

G a b C D e f#dim

Note, the  “º” marks a diminished chord.

Got it so far? Good!

Now, it is of course possible to notate certain chord inversions or ascribe specific bass notes to a chord. In that case, the bass note is being displayed behind the chord.

C/E (C over E) would look like this if met in a C-major scale: 1/3

But apart from very easy ways to write down chord progressions, the Nashville Number System also provides rhythmic notation. Whenever a chord is being played throughout the entire bar, no marker is necessary.

If a chord changed within a bar, e.g. C to e then the chords within this bar are being underlined (as one entity) like this:

1 3-

___  (this is supposed to be just one continuous line)

Now the musician knows, that both chords together are one bar long. Had a bar in C, half a bar in e.

There are cool ways to notate pauses or sustained chords as well. To dig deeper I suggest you check out the video below, which sums it up perfectly. Mind this: This is a drummer using the NNS. As I stated earlier, this systems is beneficial to all members of the band!

Conclusion 

The NNS is a easy way to play a song from scratch in any key.

It is being used by session musicians as well as experienced live bands across the globe. The downside is, you need to have at least a basic knowlege of music theory and unless you are a very fast thinker, you should keep a circle of fifth close at hand, in order to determine which sharp or flat chords are found in each key.

I hope this overview was helpful!

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