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Why I Love... The Nashville Number System

Mike Senior By Mike Senior
Published April 2024

Why I Love... The Nashville Number System

This time last year, I decided to pick up the bass guitar. Call it a mid‑life crisis if you like, but after decades as a perma‑pallid studio rat, I’ve recently emerged blinking into the limelight, accompanying assorted cover singers at a local weekly open‑mic night. To aid me in this endeavour, I started building little lead sheets on my phone for some common song choices, but quickly ran into a couple of practical problems. Firstly, I couldn’t fit an entire traditional lead sheet onto a single phone screen without the text becoming unreadably tiny — and scrolling while playing is unquestionably beyond my skill level! Secondly, many of the open‑mic singers transpose the music to suit their vocal range, putting my carefully prepared lead sheets into the wrong key.

Which is why I now love the Nashville Number System (NNS)! This alternative method of charting songs notates chords as scale‑degree numbers for the key in question, rather than with letter names. So, for instance, a 'C Dm/F G C' chord sequence in C major translates into '1 2m/4 5 1'. This immediately makes it much easier (with a little practice) to transpose songs into any required key. Now, I realise some people do something similar using Roman numerals — classical harmony textbooks are full of them, for instance. But is there honestly anyone who reads Roman numerals better than numbers? That is, anyone not wearing tweed? I don’t know about you, but I’m forever mixing up IV with VI, even when I’m not sweating to keep pace with an ever‑accelerating amateur drummer...

It makes the harmonic similarities between different songs immediately apparent, regardless of what keys those songs are in.

Besides, NNS also uses a type of rhythmic notation that’s really space‑efficient, because you don’t need to write it on any kind of bars/beats grid, which is another huge part of the appeal for me. Each number is just assumed to be a full bar of that chord, although you can underline a group of numbers to indicate they’re in the same bar and there are various other special symbols for indicating things like pushed/pulled chords, rests, and section repetitions. All of which means that, for example, the chorus of Adele’s ‘Easy On Me’ becomes ':1..4/6 5..1/3 2m..>1/3 4:' and the full song chart ends up being genuinely tweetable. But I won’t bore you with any more of the mechanics, because it’s honestly super‑easy to learn NNS from its Wikipedia page — as I did, in fact!

Beyond its manifest benefits in performance situations, however, I’ve also come to appreciate its value for comparing chord progressions from a songwriting/production perspective, because it makes the harmonic similarities between different songs immediately apparent, regardless of what keys those songs are in. So, for instance, did you know that the choruses of the Killers’ ‘Mr Brightside’, Ed Sheeran’s ‘Castle On The Hill’, and Walk The Moon’s ‘Shut Up And Dance’ all share the same four‑chord pattern, but with different harmonic rhythms? Or that Tracey Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ uses the same four‑chord ‘1 6m 5 4’ sequence as Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ and Spin Doctors’ ‘Two Princes’, but starting on ‘4’ rather than ‘1’?

So whether you’re playing music or just stroking your chin about it, do yourself a favour and check out the Nashville Number System. If you’re anything like me, you’ll wonder what took you so long!