May 2010 \ And Don’t Miss… \ The Nashville Number System Demystified

# The Nashville Number System Demystified

## The Nashville Number System is used by nearly every working musician in Nashville. Learn it!

I did a session a little while ago with a guest keyboard player who had painstakingly transcribed every note he planned on playing. He was über-prepared but regrettably misguided, because once the singer decided he wanted to try the song up a half step, this guy was screwed. When I handed him a number chart, he looked like he was going to sob, pee his pants, and then hide. The poor bastard was an egghead who knew a lot about music but never took the time to learn the down-and-dirty stuff that working musicians use every day: the Nashville Number System.

Literally, everybody working a decent gig in Nashville reads number charts—including every good engineer and drummer, even though they’re not playing notes, per se. It’s a brilliant system that allows players to change keys to accommodate any moody singer immediately. They can be written quickly and sight-read easily after a bit of practice. Much like chord charts, they don’t give you the melody, but you can write out simple signature parts in numbers. For those who haven’t yet learned the Nashville Number System, I present to you the keys to the kingdom.

Everybody writes charts a bit differently. Mine tend to be sloppy, but they all have the same basic format. In short, a line is usually four to eight measures. Each number denotes the scale degree of your key signature. All standard symbols for music apply.

 FIGURE 1. An example of an eight-bar progression written with the Nashville Number
In Figure 1, the upper right-hand corner (the circled “G” that looks a lot like a “6”) tells us that we’re playing a waltz (that is, in ¾ time) in the key of G. That means G is our 1. Measure one is a G. Measure two is a straight G for the first two beats, then a G with a B (3) in the bass on the last note of the measure, leading us into the C (4) chord for measure three. Play a straight C (4) for the first two beats, then play the G (1) over B (3) as a passing chord to A (2) minor for the fourth measure. Play a D (5) Major 7th for measure 5, then a straight D for the first beat of measure six. Play two beats on a D (5) with an F# (7) in the bass for the rest of measure six, then resolve back to our G, strumming three quarters for the 7th measure and hit a single whole note strum for the eighth measure. Then follow those repeat signs and do it again.

If your singer wants to modulate to A, the A is now your 1, D is your new 4, etc. It’s amazing how much information you can convey with just a few numbers and symbols. Figure 2 shows a list of a few symbols that you will eventually see in Nashville Number System Charts. Next time you’re recording or learning a song, write a number chart. Eventually, you’ll be able to read them without thinking so you can get down to just playing.

FIGURE 2.
Common Nashville Number System symbols.

John Bohlinger
John Bohlinger is a Nashville guitar slinger who works primarily in television, and has recorded and toured with over 30 major label artists. His songs and playing can be heard in major motion pictures, major label releases and literally hundreds of television drops. Visit him at: youtube.com/user/johnbohlinger or facebook.com/johnbohlinger

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(10 comments) display by
 Kyle Jones on 04/27/2013 John, Thanks for your expertise! You're a very respected musician in this town. As for Big Al and illiteracy- I believe that you wouldn't make it in Nashville with an attitude of prejudice which is a form of social illiteracy. Kathy K on 03/28/2013 I am a pianist, vocalist, and songwriter, I went from notating everything to writing chord charts. Now I am looking to start writing with the NNS, and to be a resource to others about it. I appreciate the introduction into it. The handwritten symbol key was difficult to read, but I got the basic idea. Thanks again for taking the time to give us an overview of it. I went to a seminar once where it was presented, but it was done too quickly for my slow brain to comprehend. Today I typed "Nashville number system for dummies" into Google and your page came up. Good thing LOL Sincerely grateful today. Brian on 03/20/2013 This explanation served my purpose well. As in other notation systems it works best on the more basic chord structures but I can see now how it copes with more complex information. It's very compact. The thing is that if a lot of people are using it then a lot more people have to learn it. Thanks for the lesson. P.K. Johnson on 03/16/2013 I missed the part that was the plain and clear explanation and therefore still don't have the 'keys to the kingdom'. One of the things I learned in teaching teachers how to teach effectively, is how to word the explanation so that it makes sense to the learner. If it isn't then there has been no learning and therefore, no teaching. I'll check out some other sites and see if there are any 'experts' who can speak in language we beginners can understand. 68 rolling on 08/23/2012 BIG AL WON'T WORK IN STUDIO MUCH. MEGA BUCKS BEING SPENT WAITING ON LITERATE BIG AL TO TRANSPOSE FROM C TO E FLAT TO ACOMADATE SINGERS RANGE.THEN US ILLITERATES HAVE TO FIGURE IT OUT WHEN HE'S THROUGH. D-D--D I MAKE ANY MISTAKES WELL ESCUSE ME. Big Steve on 08/06/2012 I wonder where Big Al's column is published? John Bohlinger on 07/09/2012 Yes Big Al...I am illiterate. My monthly column consists of crude crayon drawings. Thanks, Big Al on 04/22/2012 This just proved my point. The nashville system, invented by illiterates for illiterates. Dominate? You mean Dominant don't you? Zach on 04/16/2010 Seems like a variation on the whole roman numeral system (y'know, I-IV-V) David G, Ny. Ny. on 04/15/2010 Very helpful.