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Nashville Notation: Playing by the Numbers

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This post is part of a series called Creative Session: All About Music Notation.
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As a Mathematics graduate, I know how useful numbers are. People paint by numbers, dial phone numbers, organize books by numbers, and tell time with numbers. I've decided to start playing by the numbers.

This article was previously published on the AudioJungle blog, which has moved on to a new format in 2010. We'll be bringing you an article from the AudioJungle archives each Sunday (or this week, Friday).

Numbers have been used to analyze classical music for many years. Within a scale, Roman Numerals are used to represent chords. Upper case letters are used for major chords, and lower case letters for minor chords. In the key of C major, the chords C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am would be notated like this: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi.

I first saw this in a book I bought many years ago called "Basic Principles of Music Theory" published by Harper & Row. I started playing around with the notation, but preferred to use the notation 1, 2m, 3m, 4, 5, 6m. But I never got around to using it for my main chord charts: it was too much of a leap.

Years later I discovered that many musicians use that notation, and call it "Nashville notation". I recently decided to get serious about using Nashville notation, bought some index cards, and have started scribbling. Here's why.

1. What is Nashville Notation?

Nashville notation (also called the Nashville Numbering System) is a way of writing chord charts without being restricted to a specific key. Heath McConnell sums it up with this formula: "ONE CHART = ALL KEYS".

Neil Matthews, Jr., was born in Nashville, and was one of the original members of Elvis Presley's back-up vocal quartet The Jordanaires. He invented the system to make it easier for musicians to change the key of a song to suit the singer. His book, "The Nashville Numbering System: An Aid to Playing by Ear" is still available.

People seem to use the system in different ways, but the general idea is the same - notate with numbers instead of letters, as described above. Some people use normal (Arabic) numbers, while others prefer Roman numerals. I've seen a "six minor" chord written as vi, VIm, 6m and 6-. Some use bar lines while others don't.

These articles explain in more detail:

Even more helpful is to see how people use Nashville Notation. Lisa Aschmann has dozens of scanned scraps of Nashville notation on her site.

2. What Do I Want to Get Out of It?

I tend to be fairly slow and deliberate about making decisions like this, so I have a list of goals I want to achieve by using Nashville notation:

  • Transpose more easily. We regularly change the key of songs depending on the singer's range. Normally I can do this in my head by looking at the existing chord chart, and adding a certain number of semitones to the old chord. But it can be challenging, and some transpositions are harder than others. Using a system designed for this is very appealing.
  • Better appreciate the role chords play. By specifically notating the chords by where they fit in the scale, I'm hoping to have a much better feel for the roles these chords play in songs. I have a fairly good feel for the different roles the tonic, subdominant and dominant chords play, but seeing it spelled out in front of me as I'm playing can only help.
  • Become more familiar with scales. I think the key to using Nashville notation is familiarity. You're looking at a bit of paper with 1 4 6m 5 written on it, and my brain is just expected to know which chords to play in a certain key. I'm sure that with practice, it would become automatic, with very little thinking involved. That sort of familiarity sounds like a good thing to me.
  • Become more familiar with chord progressions. Many songs are built on familiar chord progressions. When songs are in different keys, noticing the chord progressions they have in common is more difficult. Nashville notation should help me become more familiar with chord progressions, and pick out songs that share the same progressions.
  • Learn songs more easily. At this stage I'm guessing that strings of numbers will be easier to remember than strings of letters, especially where sharps or flats are involved. For example, remembering 1 4 6m 5 (repeated twice for the chorus) should be easier than remembering F Bb Dm C.
  • Save space. I've been collecting chord charts for decades. Hundreds of them of them! They become difficult to manage after a while. I'm betting that an index card system will be much easier to manage. And on stage, having a few index cards on the floor or piano as I play sounds a lot more manageable than folders full of chord charts on A4 paper. Usually I just need a hint of where we're going, and not too much detail.

3. Getting My Brain Around It

This is why I haven't rushed into using Nashville notation: it will take time to get my brain around it!

Imagine I turn up at a rehearsal to learn a new song. I'm looking at my Nashville notation chord chart as the drummer counts in. I have to figure out which chord to play first, and then another chord every four or so beats. Can I keep up? How many wrong chords will I play? Will I hold up the band? Would I give up and get a normal chord chart? I need to turn up to that practice with a degree of competence already.

I went through something similar years ago when I decided to play guitar with a capo. With my capo on fret two, I'd be reading the chord chart in front of me, but transposing each chord two semitones down as I played. With other songs my capo could be on fret one, three or four. At first I became very good at transposing, then over the months I realized that I stopped transposing, and just knew which chord to play. It became natural. My brain adjusted.

Over the next few weeks, I intend to write out lots of songs in Nashville notation, and try playing them in different keys. I mainly play in sharp keys these days, so I'm planning to master the major keys B, E, A, D, G, C and F. I'm sure that in time it will become as natural as breathing, like playing with a capo has.

Do you use Nashville notation? Have you found it worthwhile? Do you have any tips for me? Please let me know in the comments.

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