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Getting Started with the Nashville Number System

Q: I am classically trained, so I’m used to Roman numerals to designate chords (I, IV, V7, etc.). I have become aware of lead sheets using numbers 1, 4, 5’ 1/5). Are you aware of any music I could download that uses this system?

A: What you’re referring to is the Nashville Number system. The good news is that it’s pretty much the same as the classical (or jazz) Roman numeral system.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, it is primarily used in Nashville, hence the name. I’ve known about it for a while but have only come across it when reading original charts from a recording session there.

So, like the Roman numeral system, it is basically just a way to notate songs, regardless of key. All chord relationships are based on the tonic scale.

For example, if the song is in G Major and the progression was:

GMaj – G/B – CMaj – D7

It would be written as:

1 – 1/3 – 4 – 5

It’s all in relation to the tonal center.

Often, the numbers will be written on the lyric sheet with the numbers written above the lyric relating to the change. Other times, they may be written to the side and you just have to hear the tune through to know what the harmonic rhythm is, or use your intuition and cues from the band leader.

It’s a very straight forward system, but there are a few things that you might have to get used to. Here’s an example chart (PDF) from a gig I did last year. It was an album release party for a wonderful album recorded in Nashville by local Portland area artist, Debra Arlyn).

Notice some of the additional markings… if two chords are underlined, that means that they take up one bar (two beats each). Diamonds surrounding the chords mean they are “footballs” (whole notes). Major and minor are denoted by symbols more common to jazz charts (- is minor and ? is Major)

There was no lyric sheet, so we just had to hear the songs beforehand and trust our intuition/memory.

Does anyone else have more experience than I with this system? Did I miss anything? Leave a comment below!