Nashville’s Number Chart System
Mike Dunbar & Will Griffin

Part one: Scale and Key
Part two: Chords
Part three: Time

    Nashville’s number chart system is a shorthand method of writing musical arrangements that was developed by Nashville studio musicians. 

    It is a powerful tool in the written communication of music. Reducing a chord chart to a numerical expression, however, was nothing new. "Figured bass" was used in Bach’s time, and the solfeggio (means site singing) method, (the do, re, mi’s,) of Italian musical pedagogy performed a function similar to the number system. What these approaches share is the naming of scale degrees. Do, Re, Mi; one, two, three; tonic, super-tonic, mediant; and l, ll, lll all name the degrees of the diatonic scale. Therefore we begin with a definition of this scale.

    Diatonic means "through the tones." A vibrating string or horn naturally gives us a set of tones or notes we can use in melodies. A diatonic scale arranges these notes in ascending or descending order. A type of diatonic scale is called the major scale.

    The major scale is the cornerstone of Western music. (It’s the cornerstone of Country and Western too!) Simply put, it’s the old standby:

Do Re Mi_Fa Sol La Ti_Do
½ step                 ½ step

    This scale is made up of two kinds of steps, half steps and whole steps. The half step is the smallest distance between two notes, as from one fret to another on a guitar, or from one key to the very next on a keyboard. The Italians used the "ee" sound to mark it. Mi to Fa and Ti to Do are half steps. Whole steps are the distance of two half steps, two frets, or two keys on a keyboard. Do to Re, Re to Mi, Fa to Sol, Sol to La, and La to Ti are whole-steps.

    Enter numbers. Do become 1, Re becomes 2, Mi becomes 3, Fa becomes 4, Sol becomes 5, La becomes 6, and Ti becomes 7.The major scale is now expressed as:

  1. 2 3_4 5 6 7_1
    ½             ½

    Here the half steps occur between 3 and 4, and 7 and 1. This arrangement of whole and half steps will be the same no matter what key you are in, bringing us to the subject of keys. To become fluent with the Nashville number system you must know the musical keys.

    Key means scale. If you are using a C major scale, then you are in the key of C major. If you are in the key of F then you are using an F scale. The seven letter names ABCDEFG give you a natural C major scale. CDEFGAB is 1234567 with half steps from E to F and B to C. 

    It stands to reason, then, that if you started with G the half steps would be in the wrong place. GABCDEF has half steps between B and C (that’s between 3 and 4, OK so far!) It also has half steps between E and F (between 6 and 7, bummer!) To fix it you put a sharp on F. GABCDEF# has the right half steps. We have achieved Major Scale. 

    This is why we use a number of sharps or flats at the beginning of a piece of music to signify the key. We need them to build a major scale on the desired note. Without them the half steps fall in the wrong place and the music sounds foreign.

The keys are as follows:

C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C    (No sharps or flats)
G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G    (1 #) 
D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D    (2 #)  
A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A    (3 #)  
E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#-E    (4 #)  

    Just remember that each one of these scales or keys is forming the relationship of: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step, or, in other words: 12345671.

    Sometimes you might use notes or chords that are not found in the key. If, for example, you had a Bb in the key of C, it would be a b7 (or flatted 7th.). If you had a G# in the key of C, it would be a #5. A b3 in the key of G would be Bb. A b2 in the key of D would be Eb.  A flatted 3rd. note is what you use, when you wish to create a minor scale.

    A good strategy to develop an ear for the system is to convert simple melodies to numbers. "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" would be: 1 1 5 5 6 6 5 4 4 3 3 2 2 1. Try doing this with " Happy Birthday." I’ll give you a hint…1 is usually the last note of the song, (look at "Twinkle, Twinkle….") several simple songs would prepare you for the next part in this series, Chords.

    If you feel lost, sing "Twinkle, Twinkle…" with numbers, then sing the do re mi’s with numbers, over and over until you can do them quickly, and suddenly you’ll get it. Don’t give up.

    This series is designed to give songwriters and musicians a basic understanding of the number system, for a more detailed knowledge of the system we highly recommend "the Nashville Number System" by Chas Williams.