The Nashville number system for guitar or any instrument is a quick way to communicate and name chords within a song or chord progression. It may take you a while to wrap your head around the whole idea of the Nashville Number System, but when you get it, you’ll be happy you took the time to understand it.
Why Use the Nashville Number System?
Simply speaking, the Nashville Number System makes memorization of chord progressions much easier and faster. This numbering system helps you group chords into recurring common progressions such as I, IV, V and II, V, I. So in the case of a I, IV, V progression you are memorizing the progression as a whole instead of as three separate chords. Once you get into more complex chord progressions this will make a HUGE difference in how long it takes you to memorize a chord progression and the number of songs you can memorize. Ever wonder how musicians can memorize hundreds or even thousands of songs? The Nashville Number System is how.
This number method of naming the chords is not key sensitive and so removes the necessity of attaching letter names to the chords. In many cases it also negates the need for defining major or minor. In fact this numbering system is based on principles of harmony that have been around for centuries.
Sitting down and memorizing a tune can take only a few minutes when using the Nashville number system vs hours if you are trying to memorize individual chords. Music is a system and if you aren’t acknowledging that and are seeing it as disjointed pieces, you’re only making things harder on yourself. It’s likely you’ve been trying to learn several different songs without ever seeing their similarities. What do these songs all have in common?
- Wild Thing (The Troggs)
- You are My Sunshine
- I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (U2)
- The Lion Sleeps Tonight
- Happy Birthday
- 12 Bar Blues
- La Bamba (Ritchie Valens)
What could all of these songs possibly have in common? They all use a I, IV, V chord progression. That’s right, You are My Sunshine and Wild Thing use the same chord progression. When you become experienced with the Nashville number system you’ll be able to analyse a tune within seconds and sometimes even have it learned and memorized in a couple minutes. This is because you begin to recognize the same patterns and groupings of chords that happen over and over and over again. Here’s a Nashville Number System Chart you can use as a starting guide.
Work your way through this post and the videos in this post and you will save yourself literally hundreds of hours of frustration and wasted practice time. If you have any questions I will be happy to answer them in the comments.
The Major Scale and How it’s Constructed
If you don’t understand how Major Scales are formed, you’ll never really understand the Nashville Number System. The concept is very simple and if you take a couple minutes right now to understand how Major Scales are constructed, you’ll be happy you did. It’s quite simple actually.
First you have to know what a tone and semitone are. A tone is the distance of two frets on your guitar and a semitone is the distance of one fret. That’s it.
A Major scale consists of the spacings Tone Tone Semitone Tone Tone Tone Semitone. The notes do not matter, the spacings between them do.
These two videos will help further demonstrate what I’m talking about. The first video is a bit more theoretical, while the second looks a bit more closely at how this applies to the guitar fretboard.
The Major Scale and the Guitar Fretboard
Chords Come from Scales
Chords come from scales and are built with the Take a note Skip a note method of Tertian harmony, or in other words chords are built in thirds.
The idea is you start with any major scale (doesn’t matter which one), then take a note, skip a note, take a note, skip a note and finally take a note. You do this starting on each note of the scale. This will give you every chord in the key. So if you started with a C Major scale you will have all of the chords in the key of C.
The video below clearly illustrates how this works. If you can’t read notation, keep reading. There are more examples that don’t require that you can read notes.
I, IV, V Chord Progression
So now you have all of the chords in a key. Maybe now you’re beginning to understand why you always see G, C and D together or C, F and G. It’s because those chords share a common key (or scale).
If you now give each chord a number starting on the first chord you no longer really have to think about the key, just the chord degrees.
This obviously begs the question why this matters. Here are two examples.
Singing a Song
You are trying to sing a song and it’s either too high or too low for your voice. If you understand that the song is a I, IV, V you can easily change to another key. This is an invaluable skill to have!
The Key is Not Great for the Guitar
Certain keys work better than others on the guitar. G, D and A are all good. Other keys like F aren’t so good. You end up with two barre chords if you’re playing a I, IV, V in F for example. So, if you can recognize a chord pattern, you can transpose it to a key better suited for the guitar.
Hopefully you are beginning to see that this isn’t all theoretical and that it has many practical applications.
The Nashville Number System and Chord Degrees
When you build chords from a major scale using tertian harmony (remember that word? :)), some of them are major, some minor and one diminished. This is because of the spacing between the notes. The image below makes this clear.
- Major third = tone + tone
- Minor third = tone + semitone
So the chords you will derive from any Major scale are always going to be Major minor minor Major Major minor diminished and always in that order. Say the chord types in order aloud until you have them memorized.
And with their respective degrees: I-Major II-minor III-minor IV-Major V-Major vi-minor vii-diminished
The above chords would be considered “diatonic” meaning they are derived from the one major scale.
A Quick Reference
|I Maj||ii m||iii m||IV Maj||V Maj||Vi m||Vii dim|
A Quick Example
For the sake of simplicity the above chart gives us the chords in all the natural keys (not # and b keys). Let us take a sample song, the Lion Sleeps Tonight which is a I IV V progression.
In the key of G this song would look like this:
|G |C |G |D |
In the Nashville Number System this translates to:
|I |IV |I |V |
Using the chart above in the key of D it would look like this:
|D |G |D |A |
Of course the same will hold true for every other key as well. This is not only a simple method of changing key but also an excellent way to learn to hear and identify how chord progressions work by identifying chord function.
I, V, V in the Key of C
One More Example
Let’s try one more simple song, Stand By Me which is a I VI IV V progression. The I chord in the key of C is a C Major Chord, the IV chord is F and the V chord is G. In the key of C this song would look like this:
|C | / |Am | / |F | / |G | / |
Change the key to A major:
|A | / |F#m | / |D | / |E | / |
If you check this with the chart above, the Nashville number system will start to make sense. You can begin with these simple songs and play them in several different keys. Ultimately you should learn to hear these progressions whether playing them yourself or in your music listening. Try other simple songs, there are of course thousands that can be played with only a few simple chords and all will follow the same rules and principles of harmony.
Something to make note of which you should look more into later is the idea of tension and resolution. In most cases you’ll notice that the “V” chord will resolve to the “I” Chord. This is because of the notes found within the “V” chord. I won’t go into more detail now, but it is something worth understanding and looking into later.
The Nashville Number System is Elegant, Efficient and Logical
Most musicians communicate with each other with this numbering system because of its elegance, efficiency and logic. This same system is used in jam session settings all over the world. If you take the time to learn this language and learn your open position chord forms consider yourself included. Learn to play the progressions as numbers as well as learn to hear them in your listening.
It’s likely even after reading this whole post on the Nashville number system and watching each video carefully it still won’t make complete sense. That’s because there’s a lot to take in. When you are playing chords, see if you can figure out which key they’re in and try to figure out each chord’s degree. It will require some thinking and patience at first, but if you stick with it you’ll thank yourself. Once you’re familiar with the Nashville number system it will become second nature and you will begin to think of chords in degrees and in the context of a key, not necessarily chord names all of the time.
Let me know what you think in the comments section and if you have any questions.