Nashville Number System – What Is It and How It Works

Nancy B. Alston

The Nashville number (or numbering) system is possibly one of the best ways for writing musical charts. Let me explain why.

What is a chart?

A chart is a piece of paper, normally manuscript paper, that represents the map for a specific song. It tells you all the information most musicians need, such a speed (metronome speed), key, type of groove, chords, accents, hits and in some cases even distribution of the solos. A chart is normally written using standard notation and requires some ability of reading music. Most professionals and semi-professionals musicians can normally read a chart.

So what’s wrong with normal charts?

Nothing, absolutely nothing. They work fine but they have one limitation. Transposition. If a singer shows up at the rehearsal and says: “I’ve got a problem with my voice today, can we do it in a different key” normally what you see is panic in the eyes of all musicians (well, expect drummers!) Why? Because transposing a chart on sight can be pretty demanding and most musicians won’t be able to do that. Most of them will be so worried about ‘reading’ it that if you just try to add something else on top of that they will collapse!

So how does the Nashville number chart solve this problem?

It doesn’t really use notes, it uses numbers. Not roman numbers such I, IV, V, but simple and straight forward numbers (1, 4, 5). Each number represents a note within a major scale (a degree in a tonality).

So do I need to know major scales?

Yes. This is a requirement for this system and it’s also a bit of information that most musicians know and understand (except drummers and singers… ok, ok… just kidding).

Rule is: if you know your major scale you can read and transpose a Nashville number chart.

In some cases even if you don’t.

Let me assume that you don’t know any major scales. Let’s see if you can learn how to read and transpose a chart written with the Nashville number system by the end of this article.

This is the C major scale.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

You need to know ONE thing to start. One number represents ONE bar. Simple.

E.g.: 1 = One bar of the C chord.

Read this Nashville number system chart:

1 1 1 1
4 4 1 1
5 4 1 5

Can you read it? Well… let’s check if you can really read it. This is what you should have played. (standard notation)

|C |C |C |C |

|F |F |C |C |

|G |F |C |G |

If that’s what you’ve done then yes, you can read it.

Ok, why is this system easier to transpose.

To transpose it most musicians would have to sit down and re write a new chart in the new key. With the Nashville number system you don’t. You use the same chart, just change the key you’re thinking in.

Remember what I said before?

‘If you know your major scale you can read and transpose a Nashville number chart’.

Let’s see if I’m right. This is the Ab major scale.

Ab Bb C Db Eb F G
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

See if you can transpose the previous chart.

1 1 1 1
4 4 1 1
5 4 1 5

This is what you should get.

|Ab |Ab |Ab |Ab |

|Db |Db |Ab |Ab |

|Eb |Db |Ab |Eb |

Got it? Great!

Of course there are many other things to explain about this system e.g. how to write minor chords, extended or altered chords, rhythms, etc.. But this should get you started.

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