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The Nashville Numbering System is nothing to fear

December 13, 2012

If you’ve heard of the Nashville Numbering System, you might think it’s a specialized “secret code” music notation only for top-notch professional recording session stars.  You might think that it’s only used in Nashville but nowhere else?   You might think that it’s very advanced and over your head…

Good news!  Not true.  The reason they use this particular system is because it’s easy!  And further, it’s not really a system at all.  If you wanted it to be secret, you might want to make it complicated, but it’s really used to help all the pickers stay together in a recording session.  If your band has been together for a long time, you have pretty much ironed out all your details and each member has agreed on what key to play in, how fast to play the tune, who gets what break, etc.  Session players might not have played together before, so they need some rules and guidelines that are fairly standardized so that they’ll be able to get the work done quickly, since “time is money.”

Simply put, the Nashville Numbering System is just replacing the letter names of the chords with numbers.  You already know that there are loads of songs that have G, C, and D as the chords to the song.  In the Nashville Numbering System, G, C, and D would be referred to as: 1, 4, and 5.  “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” can be played with G, C, and, D.  In the Nashville Numbering System, we’d refer to G as 1, C as 4, and D as 5.  But you also probably know that some people might play “Will the Circle be Unbroken” in the key of A.  In this situation, A would be 1, D would be 4, and E would be 5.   The key has changed, but the numbers remained the same.  In other words, no matter what key you play it in, “Will the Circle be Unbroken” will always start with the one-chord because “One” is referring to the key that you have chosen to play the song in.  If you choose to play “Will the Circle be Unbroken” in the key of C, then C is referred to as the “One-Chord.”  By the time you’ve been around music long enough to have learned a hundred songs, you will be catching on to this concept because there are so many similarities from one song to the next.  If you are at the stage where you’ve only learned 4 or 5 songs so far, this may still be a little confusing.

If you play “Will the Circle be Unbroken” in the key of C, then C is 1, F is 4, and G is 5.

Are you familiar with “Salty Dog?”  If so, you’ve probably played it in G.  The chords are G, E, A, and D.  Going to these chords is like baseball.  G is home-plate, E is first-base, A is second-base, D is third-base, and what is home plate?  Right!  G is home-plate.  But what if…JUST WHAT IF…, we wanted to play “Salty Dog” in a different key.  I know what you’re thinking’, (vote that @#$% mandolin or fiddle player off the island, cause I left my capo at home).  Well, if you put your capo on the 2nd fret, what are the “actual chords” that you’re playing on “Salty Dog”?  A, F#, B, E.  You are fretting G, E, A, and D. (much easier than making those “Barre-Chords”).  But whether you are in the key of G or the key of A, the numbers of “Salty Dog” are 1, 6, 2, and 5.

Keep in mind that these numbers come from the “Major-Scale.”  6 is the 6th note of the major scale, 2 is the 2nd note of the major scale.  You can probably guess if you didn’t already know, that the major scale can be played in any key.  So no matter what key you are in, you can count each step as 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8, (although the alphabetical names would be totally different for each key).  So it really is handy to be able to attach one name for every chord no matter what key you choose.  That’s part of why the “Nashville Number System” exists!  But the main reason is because G chord does not tell you what role G plays in the song.  Is it the 1-chord, the 4-chord, or the 5-chord?  Well, that depends on what key the song is in.  We can call the scale: DO, RE, ME, FA, SO, LA, TI, DO.  Or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.  Or G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G.  But D O, RE, ME, AND 1, 4, 5 tell us more.  In formal music theory, they call the 1-chord, THE TONIC CHORD.  They call the 4-chord, THE SUBDOMINANT CHORD.  They call the 5-chord, THE DOMINANT CHORD.  So is G the TONIC?  Yes, when you are in the key of G, but no, when you are in other keys.  In other words, the Nashville Numbering System is referring to the chord as it is used as a specific device in a song.  If that is confusion, don’t worry.  Examples will make it easy to understand.

What if, JUST WHAT IF, you were capoed up to the second fret and you fretted a G and the mandolin player asked you what chord you played?  If you said G, he might play a G on his mandolin.  That would sound terrible because your fretted G would actually be an A.  Well, you know how it is sometimes when you get caught up in the moment and you’re concentrating on not making a mistake, and you realized when it was too late, that you had your guitar capo on, and you inadvertently told that mandolin player the wrong thing.  This is just one…JUST ONE LITTLE EXAMPLE…of how handy it is to use numbers to represent chords rather than the alphabetical chord name.

To clarify, these chords in every song represent a specific musical device.  In baseball you start at home, hit the ball, run to first, second, third, and home.  First base is always the same.  The “first base” in music (in most cases) is the 4-chord.  In “formal” music circles it’s called the “subdominant” chord.  So if you used that lingo, you’d be speaking “the orchestral naming system” (I just made that up).

It’s probably less confusing to think of it as the baseball bases.  First bass never changes.  First base never gets called “home plate.”  Similarly, the 4-chord never changes.  It’s always the subdominant chord no matter what key you choose to play a particular song in.

Many musicians use the Nashville Numbering system as a language to communicate chords to the people that they play with.  You can expect to see amateurs as well as pros using this lingo, and if you get acquainted with it yourself, it will help you, and your fellow pickers will appreciate your using it.  If they don’t know about it, you can take pride in teaching it to them.

Did this Nashville Numbering System originate in Nashville?  No.  It originated with 17th century harmony rules.  I don’t actually know how people came to start calling it The (Nashville) Numbering System, but Nashville is one of the biggest recording centers in the world and with so much recording going on there, it must have just caught on.  I’ve often wondered if some of the other prominent recording cities have felt jealous that it wasn’t named after Nashville. (?)

My primary purpose in life has not been to teach you a song, but to use a song to teach you the components and principals, so that I will lead you to become self sufficient, independent, and knowledgeable enough to be able to participate FULLY, with others playing music.  My reasoning is that there’s always going to be a new song, and after you find someone to teach it to you, then another song will come along that you’d like to learn and you’re back to square one again.

You want to be able to participate.  You work hard to learn a bunch of songs.  You go to a festival.  You have the courage to open your guitar case.  You get tuned up.  They start a song that you don’t happen to know.  You say to yourself, “I’ll be patient and maybe I’ll know the next one.”  After 2 hours, they haven’t played even one song that you know.  How frustrating!  When we at Musician’s Workshop create music instruction courses, this is the problem that we address.

The Nashville Numbering System is just one of many subjects that I teach in my 2-hour video called “Understanding the Formula of Music Makes it So Easy.”



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