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!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Nice article, has over 1,000 chord charts that you can convert to this numeric notation, a great way for players to experience what tunes they know may look with this notation.

  2. that’s really complicated compared to the roman numbers, even chord symbols are pretty easy.

  3. For those of us who are self taught (having no musical training at all), standard notation and other musical verbiage can be confusing and sometimes discouraging. But if you know your major and minor scales, the numbering system is a great way for us to stay in the game until our understanding of music theory improves. And it is ESPECIALLY useful when you have to transpose a piece of music from one key to another.

  4. For a push > above the number, a stop ^ above number. Everybody has their own tricks they use for the number system. I even put dots above the number if it’s three beats on the 1 and one beat on the 4. The Nashville number system is very easy and as Terrance said it’s very useful when you transpose to another key. The one is the one where ever you want to take it.

  5. As someone who lives and works in Nashville, I feel like you aren’t giving the number system the credit it deserves. A well written chart provides enough rhythmic and harmonic information for you to play the song top to bottom without hearing the song/referencing a lyric sheet. The best reference for learning the system is titled (appropriately) The Nashville Number System. I came from a rock and then classical background. The Nashville number system does an amazing job of connecting those two musical worlds. I wish everyone was at least familiar if not competent with it.

  6. I love the number system just started using it again over the last few months hal leonard makes a very good book/cd package that teaches it in depth you can get at for like 18$.

  7. If any of your readers are interested in more about the system, I’ve written a “gig-bag book” titled “Diamond on the 1: a musician’s guide to the Nashville Number System.”