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The Nashville Number System: What Is It?

Guest post by Soundfly Mentor Andre Madatian. This article originally appeared on Soundfly’s Flypaper

If you ask almost any Broadway Street musician in downtown Nashville, they will tell you that the Nashville number system has gotten them through at least a song or two, if not an entire set, on a honky tonk stage at some point in their career. Some don’t even leave the house without their iPad filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of Nashville-style notated charts before heading to work or a weekend run of shows out of town. But there is something quite definitive and unique about the way Nashville creates their charts — almost like a universal language amongst all of the musicians in the local community.

But how are these charts read and understood? And why, if I’m not in Nashville, should I care?

From an outsider’s perspective, the notation can look like hieroglyphics at times, and has even been known to confuse scholarly musicians on first glance! The truth is that this form of notation is useful beyond the city limits of Nashville, in any situation where you might need a last minute player to sub in, or if you want to get hired on more session jobs. If you’re familiar with chord numbers, you’ll immediately recognize that aspect, but what are all these other symbols and how do they change the timbre or flow of what I’m playing in relation to the band, in real time? We’ll cover all of that.

Understanding the System

Let’s take a look at a typical “Nashville-style” chart below.

The first thing that we notice is the title of the song, which in this case is, “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” by Jake Owen. Generally, to the right of the song title you will see the name of the person who is responsible for creating the chart; in this instance, it’s “C. Marshall.” Let’s listen to the song, and see if you can follow along with the chart innately.

Now that we are a bit more familiar with the song, let’s start to analyze the technical and musical aspects of the chart. To the left of the song title, you will usually see the key and the time signature. Referring to the above example, this particular song is in E major and is in 4/4 time.

Navigating Tonality

Here’s where it gets a little complicated. What makes the Nashville system unique from other conventional notation charts is that the chord symbols always reflect the major key. For example, since we know that “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” is in the key of E major, we see a “1” on the chart which indicates that the musician should play an E major chord.

But let’s say, hypothetically, that “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” was in the key of E minor. The chart would then be notated in its relative major key. For example, the top left of the Nashville chart would be written as G major/E minor and the first chord would be notated as a “6-” as opposed to a “1-.” The reason for this is to keep the chart simple and to avoid having to use accidentals all throughout the chart.

Sight-Reading the Song

Moving forward, we notice that the chart is broken down by song sections. The first section is labeled “Intro” and it’s noted that it should be played on an acoustic instrument (likely guitar, but not specified). Other sections include the Verse, the Turn (“band in” indicates where the rhythm section should start playing), a second Verse, a Chorus, a third Verse, a second Chorus, and finally an Outro.

Let’s start by analyzing the chord symbols of the Intro. We see the numbers “1 5 4 5” pretty much throughout the entire song, so this will be a simple tune to read. The numbers reflect the diatonic chord symbols of the indicated key. So for this song, “1 5 4 5” in the key of E major will be E major, B major, A major, and B major.

Now that we know which chords to play, it’s important to understand the rhythmic values of each chord. This is where the uniquenesses of the Nashville number system begin to come out. You’ll notice that there are lines appearing underneath the “1 5” and “4 5” throughout the entire chart. This line indicates where the measures start and end. So usually, if there are only two chords above each line, it means the chords are played as half notes unless otherwise suggested. You may also see dashes or extra lines accompanying the underline, to denote other rhythmic subdivisions, such as the first chord being held for three beats and the second chord for one beat, for example.

With no rhythmic indicators, you’d play the “1” chord for two beats and the “5” chord for two beats, completing one full measure, and the same goes for the “4 5” progression. If you see a chord with no line underneath, that’s an indication that the chord should have a whole note value, or four beats in a 4/4 time signature. In this case, you’ll notice that there is a “>” symbol on most of the “5” chords throughout the whole chart. This sign indicates a “push” or slight syncopation on the chord. So instead of playing the “5” chord on the start of beat three, we will play this chord on the “and” of beat two.

Rhythmic indications are often left vague in the Nashville number system, so many people who write these charts make a point to notate a specific rhythmic pattern for reference. In the above chart, there’s a dotted quarter note for the “4” chord and an eighth note for the “5” chord followed by a half rest under the first Verse.

Aside from a couple rhythmic changes in the last Chorus, this song is quite repetitive in terms of harmonic and rhythmic structure. Something to take note of is the “(acoustic)” indication in the fifth measure of the last Chorus. While performing this song, I would know to cue the rhythm section to stop playing at that measure. However, this chart fails to notate whether or not the rhythm section comes back in. Since I’m already familiar with this song, I know that the band comes back in on measure nine of that section, but that should have been indicated in this chart. The more information provided the better!

Lastly, we see that the Outro is repeated. The creator of the chart used both a double dotted bar line and a written note to prepare the performer, since musicians may not always be unified in their ability to to sight read.

Although there are a few variations of the Nashville number system, the above example is a current depiction of what you may see when asked to sub for a gig in downtown Nashville. Some charts are more detailed than others but having a simple chart can be a great source of reference, especially in an environment like Broadway Street, where musicians are served up requests constantly throughout the gig. It’s important to understand these charts, not only for playing the Nashville circuit, but also if you want to create handy reference guides for session players, or to make it easy for anyone to play your music accurately.

If you’re still a bit confused and want to go through how this system works with me, get in touch here and I can help you out personally — that’s what Soundfly’s Headliners Club is all about! If you’re interested in working with me on your next music project, fill out this form to tell us about your goals and be sure to mention my name in your response!

Otherwise, get out there and start chartin’!

Advance your skills and open up more opportunities in music. Explore Soundfly’s growing array of Mainstage courses that feature personal support and 1-on-1 mentorship from experienced professionals in the field, such as Orchestration for StringsUnlocking the Emotional Power of Chordsand The New Songwriter’s Workshop.

The Nashville Number System: What Is It?

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