Nashville is home to an abundance of musicians, Nashville hot chicken (are you a Prince’s or Hattie B’s fan??) and Honky Tonks to name a few. The “Music City” also owns the rights of being the birthplace of the Nashville Number System (NNS).
If you are going to take a sub gig, play on the road, play on demo or recording sessions or just about any other scenario you can imagine, you need to know and understand the Nashville Number System (NNS). This method/system of writing and reading charts is being used outside of Nashville now, as well. It’s basically a shorthand version of figuring out the chord progressions.
What is the Nashville Number System?
The Nashville Number System transcribes music from the traditional musical alphabet to numbers and intervals. You can thank this system if you’ve ever heard a song and been able to play it without reading the music. It saves time by not requiring a new chart everytime singers, producers or bandleaders need to quickly change keys. However, it requires the players to have an understanding of music theory, harmony and rhythm ahead of time. Players must also know the symbols used to communicate direction and musical ideas. But once you’ve got this all down pat, you now enjoy the freedom of improvisation without having to start a new chart.
Here’s an example of the NNS:
You’re in C major with only three chords, C, F and G. These chords are the first, fourth and fifth chords in the major, therefore the number chart would be 1, 4 and 5.
Who created this system?
Neal Matthews, a vocalist for The Jordanaires, developed this flexible system in the 1950s because his back-to-back studio sessions made it difficult to memorize all the songs he was recording. He figured that as long as he knew the starting key he could then translate the rest of the key changes rather than rewrite the whole chart. Charlie McCoy can be thanked for expanding the framework Matthews laid down to transform the system to the NNS we’re used to today.
Surprisingly, Matthews and McCoy weren’t the first musicians to use this system. Historians can document something similar to the Nashville Number System dating all the way back to the 1700s! Musicians from that time period would transcribe chord progressions using Roman numerals and figured bass systems. The NNS we know and love uses Arabic numerals to represent scale degrees but it’s the same idea. Musicians just need to know the major scale for any key. More than 90 percent of charts written in Nashville use the NNS today, which is why it’s important to know it if you plan to play music in the Music City.