Nashville Number System


    Sam Jones is musical ninja and worship leader in Houston, TX. He has been on our worship team for about 3 years at the Downtown Campus of Houston's First. So proud of him and what he is doing. You will soon find out, he knows his stuff. Some of you might have incorporated the NNS already, if not, I believe it is an essential part of training and leading in worship through song.

    You should learn the language of music.  For hundreds of years, smarter people than me have been writing about music and creating terminology in effort to talk about a purely aural experience.  This field is called “Music Theory”. I’m not here to ask you to go back and get a degree in Music Theory (I’m a huge nerd so that’s basically what I did).  However, I AM asking you to learn a simple concept called “The Nashville Number System”.   The system’s roots are found in classical music theory, and as the name implies, it was first utilized in Nashville in order to facilitate efficiency and creativity in recording studios.    If you learn it, you too can facilitate efficiency and creativity in your rehearsals and times of worship.  

    Whether you know it or not, every song you play is in a key and each key is made up of only 7 different notes.  

    For simplicity sake, let’s use the key of C Major.   Here are the notes in said key:

    C D E F G A B

    If you’re playing in the key of C, you’ll most likely play a C chord,  an F chord, an A minor chord, and also a G chord.  The Nashville System gives a number to each chord used in any key.  For example, the C major chord will be called “1” and the F chord will be called “4” and the A minor chord will be called “-6", as seen below, etc.

    C   Dm Em   F    G   Am Bdim
    1    -2    -3     4   5    -6    7dim

    This is the fundamental concept of labeling chords using the Nashville System.  As you can see, we use a minus sign “-“ to denote a minor chord (flat third) and “dim” for a diminish chord (flat third and flat fifth).  If you want to know more about what a “flat third” or “flat fifth” really means just Google, “Chord Theory”.  

    For practical application, it’s best to start by learning all the 1, 4, 5, and -6 chords, in several keys as these are most commonly used chords worship music.   Here’s a list: 

    1 4 5 -6 Chords 

    Key of C :  C   F  G  Am
    Key of D:  D  G  A  Bm
    Key of E:  E   A  B  C#m
    Key of G:  G  C  D Em
    Key of A :  A  D  E F#m
    Key of B:   B  E  F#  G#m

    For chord inversions or “slash” chords such as C/E, we simply write it as 1/3, (You can say “one over three”).   

    For some more practical application let’s take a really common chord progression is C  |  G  |  Am | F (“With or Without You” aka “Blessed Be Your Name”) and with the Nashville System we could write it as: 

    C    G   Am   F
    1    5     -6     4 

    One of the primary benefits of the Nashville system is the ability to transpose songs to a different key very quickly.   We can easily plug in the numbers and transpose “With Or Without You”/”Blessed Be Your Name” to the key of A Major.  The progression would then be:  

    Key of C:     C   G   Am    F
    Numbers:   1    5     -6    4 
    Key of A:     A   E   F#m  D

    This comes in handy if you’re a guitarist and use a capo or if you’re just wanting to find an easier key to sing a song in.  

    Another benefit of the Nashville system is being able to quickly communicate chord changes to your team.  Numbers are easier to understand in a loud rehearsal and you can also throw up some hand signals to let your band know which chord you want to go to next (especially helpful at the end of songs). 

    Things to practice: begin thinking of chords as numbers while you play, memorize the list of chords above from common keys, transpose as many songs as you can into several different keys, learn which notes are flats or sharps in any given key (called Key Signatures or Circle of Fifths), learn how chords are built, if you play guitar, practice a song with a capo in different places or without one, and finally, teach someone else the system once you get the hang of it.
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