Nashville Number System Decoded
During the 10 years I spent working in Nashville as a studio player, I picked up a lot of tips and methods for some musical shorthand techniques. One of these is more commonly known as the Nashville Number System. Originally developed by the Nashville studio players in the ’50s, it’s a simple but ingenious system of writing out chord progressions by using the corresponding numbers based around the harmonized major scale.

For example, a G–C–D progression in the key of G would be written as 1 4 5. A C–Am–Dm–G progression would be 1 6- 2- 5 (the minus signs indicate minor chords).

The beauty of this system is that if a singer comes into a session and says, “That key is too high. Can you move it to Gb?” you won’t need to transpose any letters in your head, you can just adjust the chords while looking at the same harmonic movement. It does have its limitations though. I wouldn’t try to write out a Steely Dan tune with this system, and key changes within a tune are often awkward. Once you learn to hear root movements, you will eventually get to the point where you will be able to write out charts very quickly without an instrument.

The simple progression in Ex. 2 is in the key of E. Above each symbol I’ve written the chord name to help decipher what everything means. In the first measure, you’ll see a 1 with a diamond around it. The diamond is meant to symbolize a whole note, so let the chord ring through the entire measure. Although there are variations on this, whenever you see two chords in one measure, each chord is either underlined or written in parentheses. You can also use dots on top of each number to denote beat placement. And remember, as we saw a moment ago, a minus sign or dash on the right side of a number means to play it as a minor chord. In this example, that’s a C#m.

In the third measure, notice a scraggly little arrow going from the b7 to the 4. Sometimes these are called “pushes” where you anticipate the second chord by playing on the “and” of beat 2. Remember: Each chord gets two beats when they are underlined.

The final symbol to check out in this example is the 1/3 in the fifth measure. This is a quick way to notate specific voicings or inversions of chords. Here, we play an E major chord with a G# (the 3) in the bass.

I moved to the key of Bb for Ex. 3. As you can see, we’re capoed at the 3rd fret (which makes this progression actually in the key of Db). This is something you could easily run into on a songwriter session.

Ex. 4 is our final example of the Nashville system. Nothing new here, except for the fourth measure. Here, we are walking up to the 6- chord in the final measure. Each chord gets one beat (indicated by the dots above each chord). Although this is a minor-sounding progression, everything relates to the major scale. This is very similar to what you would see on a Nashville session.