About Nashville Numbers
Nashville Numbers is an ingenious system of music notation shorthand, named for its use of numbers rather than letters to identify chords.
The system dates to the 1950’s, when charting technology consisted of pencil and paper. Writing a chart in one key, only to have to completely rewrite it later in another key, was slowing things down in Nashville’s otherwise famously efficient studios.
Enter the idea of using numbers, representing scale degrees, in place of the usual chord letters. Now charts could be ready to go in any key — no rewrites necessary.
So instead of this sequence of chords in the key of G…
You’d see this in a Number chart…
Number Charts, Meet Letters!
Technology has changed a lot since the ‘50s, and 1Chart v2.0 gives you the flexibility to use either chord letters or chord numbers in your charts. Key changes are no problem in either format. Adjust the key in your chart’s header, and 1Chart will automatically update your letter-format chords to reflect the change.
So what’s left of the Number System, if you take numbers out of the equation by using letter-format chords? The answer is: A whole bunch of convenient, time-saving features. There are many advantages to the system beyond the key flexibility that number chords originally offered.
The Number System’s main advantages:
A number chart gives concise cues about a song’s rhythm and dynamics. The Number System borrows symbols from traditional notation and adds a few of its own to help convey rhythmic details quickly.
A number chart is very compact. Often a complete song will fit on a single page. So it’s easy to write a chart quickly, and it’s easy to read it back at a glance when you’re performing.
A number chart is valid no matter what key you choose to play it in. It’s worth restating this original driving factor behind the system, even though 1Chart gives you the flexility to use letter-format chords. In fact, if you plan on using charts printed from 1Chart, you’ll still want to consider using a “true” number chart, in case you need to change the song’s key at a moment’s notice before a particular performance.
Although the system can get fairly detailed, a number chart is usually intended to provide a general road map of a song, not a complete record of every chord voicing and rhythmic nuance. The idea is to create and review the chart in advance of a performance, so that it’s more of a reminder of what you’re already familiar with.
Interested in learning a little more? Read on! And don’t worry if you’re new to the Number System — it takes just a small up-front investment of time to fully grasp.
Do Re Mi… ABC… 123…
The Jackson 5 “ABC” song pretty much explains it. If your song had a chord progression of A, B, C in the key of A, you would represent that in the Number System as 1, 2, 3 (ignoring sharps and flats, just for a minute). Or consider a more common chord sequence, shown in the key of A.
In the Number System, the chords would be written as:
The numbers match the position of the chords relative to the notes found the A major scale:
No matter what key you’re in, this 1/4/5 relationship of the chords remains the same. Look at the same chord progression represented in two other keys.
Key of G
Key of F
The Number System representation is identical in each key because the relationship of the chords – their relative position in the scale – doesn’t change when the key changes.
“Key independence” is an especially big time-saver when you have a page-long chart showing chords. If someone wants to change keys, you don’t need to rewrite the chart. Just tell everyone the song is now in G, and you’re done. “1” is now G.
Rhythm and Dynamics Are Part of the Mix
To help communicate rhythm and other details quickly and succinctly, Numbers includes several symbols unique to the system. A few examples:
The “>” push symbol tells you to play this 5 chord an 8th note early.
The “diamond” symbol is a cue to strike the chord once and then let it ring for the duration of the measure.
The “dorito” symbol means you should play and then quickly mute a chord.
Underlining indicates multiple chords in one “split” measure. If no detailed rhythm is indicated, it’s implied that each chord has the same duration.
Numbers also borrows symbols from traditional notation. For example:
Traditional notation specifying duration of chords in a split measure. The “repeat last measure” sign following the measure is also borrowed from traditional notation.
The system gives you options for how you want to notate rhythm – choose Nashville or traditional symbols.
Numbers’ “hash marks” indicating duration of chords in a split measure – one quarter note per hash mark.
You can use traditional notation to indicate the same rhythmic information.
The level of detail included in a chart is completely up to you. Sometimes, if you already know a song fairly well, you might just need the chart to serve as an overall reminder. But when you have a song you’re not familiar with, you’ll probably want to document it more completely. The system is flexible enough to adapt to both needs.
The Number System Is Fast and Compact
Musicians who use Numbers often chart in real time as they’re listening to the song being played. The system is fast because you can use as little as one number to communicate what’s happening for an entire measure, and when you need to get more detailed, you’ve got a toolbox of shorthand symbols that cover most situations.
Numbers is also convenient because it’s so compact – it takes up very little horizontal space to represent a lot of “real time.” The following example, created in 1Chart, shows two sections, each with eight measures per line.
The above example uses 1Chart’s “medium” font setting, so in some cases you may be able to include even more information on a single line.
Is the Number System for people who can’t read music?
While you don’t have to be able to read traditional notation to read a number chart, Nashville Numbers isn’t intended as a replacement for traditional notation or a crutch for those who aren’t trained in it. The Number System serves a particular need: providing a fast, shorthand style of documenting a song in a way that keeps it from being tied to a particular key. Many people using Numbers are fluent in traditional notation. They use Numbers because it fills a gap that traditional notation doesn’t.
Is the system used only in Nashville? Only for country music?
The Number System was certainly popularized in Nashville, but now has its fans throughout the world. That’s partly because Numbers is suited for notating many different styles of music, although most people would say it’s best for what could be broadly categorized as popular music: country, rock, and pop.