The Nashville Number System

The Nashville number system is a shorthand way to write charts for songs. Once you know it and become adept at hearing intervals you can chart songs while listening to them on an airplane with no instrument in sight. And instead of remembering how many sharps or flats are in a key as you're hollering chords to your buddy during a show, you just shout out or flash the corresponding numbers and throw your cares away.

The proof is in the pudding! Here's a demonstration--

To understand the Nashville system, you need to understand which chords are always written as major and which chords are always written as minor. You might have noticed that certain chords in a common progression usually tend to be major and certain chords tend to be minor. For example, if you're playing a song in the key of C major, C is a major chord. If someone throws in a turnaround you might find yourself playing an Am to a Dm to a G and back to C. (This general rule tends not to be as true in bluegrass as in other genres.) ...But why?

The source of the NNS is rooted in the intervals of the notes comprising the familiar sequence we all learned at a young age. DO - RE - ME - FA - SO - LA - TI - DO. These notes are the fundamental roots used in the creation of chords. They are the white keys on a piano keyboard. There are just seven of them in one octive. There are 5 black keys, interspered among the seven, so we end up with 12 notes in an octive. Although the black keys are also used as roots to create chords, they are not necessary for the understanding of the NNS. The NNS is a simple statement of the relationship between the chords associated with the key arising from the root note.

Let's play some chords on piano keyboard. To make a triad, which is a chord made of three notes, put your thumb on middle C, your middle finger on E, and your pinky on G. That's a C major chord. Now, take that same finger pattern, pick up your hand and move it up the scale to the note next door, plopping your thumb on D, middle finger on F, and pinky on A. You're now playing a Dm chord. Keep moving this triad pattern note by note up the scale until you get to the C an octave above where you started. As you do, the chord types will change. Here are the triads you're gonna get if you stay in the scale:

Step 1 Step2 Step 3 Step 4 Step 5 Step 6 Step 7
C (C–E–G) Dm (D–F–A) Em (E–G–B) F (F–A–C) G (G–B–D) Am (A–C–E) Bdim (B–D–F)

You can repeat this test, starting from any note position and the results will always lead to the same result. Music is mathematics!

So now, we can develop "Implied Knowledge" rules.

It's implied that when you see a 1 on the chart it will be a major chord, 2 will be minor, and so on. This follows the pattern we established above, when harmonizing the C major scale using triads. In the chart below, we've expanded our table io include most of the common keys used in bluegrass music (and left out the Flat Keys that occupy the space between Bb and B, but the same rule applies for *all* Major keys.

Here are some of the notation rules which are in use:
# = sharp
b = flat
m = minor - Note that the 2,3 and 6 chord positions are *assumed* to be minor chords (m), so if you see 2,3,or 6 on a chart, play the minor.
M=major - For positions 2,3 and 6, when these chords are actually Major.
7 - Play the dominant seventh chord
b7 - I've added an eighth column to the chart, just for us bluegrass people. If you inspect the regular chart, for the key of G, for example, the F chord is nowhere to be seen - but in bluegrass, it is frequently used in songs such as "Little Maggie"and numerous others. If you look at the 'G' chart, you'll see the 7 chord for G is F#dim, but the dominant seven chord is achieved by adding a Flat 7 note ro the G chord. Weird, right? - So what happens when you play the Flat 7 chord? Whole new sound, because the F Major doesn't sound like the G7. Cool Try this little test yourself....Play this sequence - 1, 17, b7, 4, 1 (That is G, G7, F, C, G)
Δ = major 7th - (it takes four characters to write "maj7" as opposed to one, "Δ")
° = diminished
°M7 = diminished major seventh
+ = augmented 5th
ø = ø7 = half diminished seventh
+7 = augmented minor seventh

Key 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 b7
Bb Bb C(m) D(m) Eb F G(m) Adim Ab
F F G(m) A(m) Bb C D(m) Edim Eb
C C D(m) E(m) F G A(m) Bdim Bb
G G A(m) B(m) C D E(m) F#dim F
D D E(m) F#(m) G A B(m) C#dim C
A A B(m) C#(m) D E F#(m) G#dim G
E E F#(m) G#(m) A B C#(m) D#dim D
B B C#(m) D#(m) E F# G#(m) A#dim A

A lot of the notation rules will possibly never be seen or used by most, but I included them for the sake of completeness.
I first encountered the Nashville Numbering System when I received the song lyrics file available in this section. It took a short period to convince me of the power and simplicity of this system, compared to trying to remember dozens of chord charts by chord names. Any comments and/or criticisms may be addressed to Gord DeVries. My contact info is available in the "About-Contact" page on this site. Good luck and keep pickin'.