Crunching The Nashville Number System
By Chris Marion |
Crunching The Nashville Number System
When I moved to Nashville in the 80’s and had my first opportunity to participate in a recording session, I was abruptly introduced to a notation system called the Nashville Number System. Imagine already being intimidated by being the new guy on a session and then realizing that you would have to speak a completely different language to communicate musically. I was handed a chart with a collection of symmetrically arranged numbers with various chord voicings, dashes, slashes, parentheses and symbols. After I recovered from the shock and awe of the moment, I recognized that this rudimentary notation based on the degrees of the scale was actually the simplest and most efficient way of all time to get a bunch of musicians on the same page – literally and figuratively.
The Nashville Number System (NNS) was originally developed in the 1950’s by Neal Matthews, Jr. of the world-renowned vocal group The Jordanaires (Elvis, Patsy Cline, George Jones) as a way to teach the singers their parts in the recording studio. It’s very similar to the Movable do solfège system that assigns a syllable to each degree of the scale or note. Movability is the operative function of both systems in that regardless of what key you are in, the degrees of the scale remain the same. Where in the solfège system the one of the scale is “do”, in the NNS the first degree of the scale is just the numeral 1. The brilliance of the Matthews idea that the degree delineation for the scale can also to apply to chord roots as well single notes. A Nashville harmonica player by the name of Charlie McCoy recognized this application and started using the system for chord charts in the recording sessions he was leading.
While Nashville had some of the most phenomenal technical instrumentalists in the world, many were self taught and had very basic knowledge of music theory. But, even hillbillies could count (or cipher as Earnest T. Bass used to say on Andy Griffith) from 1 to 7. (editorial note: I can take the liberty to poke fun since I hail from rural Virginia and rarely wore shoes as a child.) We called this self-taught musical ability “playing by ear”. You learned the tonal relationship between intervals and chords naturally, you just didn’t have a specific term for it. The NNS at a basic application gave these self-taught players a simple way to communicate chords and intervals on the fly. As the system developed and became integrated into common use for notation, simple ways for notating things like rhythm, chord voicing, structure and even augmentation blossomed. The NNS could be as simple or as complex as the user required. Most of the industry changing music that was created in Nashville over the next few decades was directed by charts written with a version of the NNS from Patsy Cline to Peggy Lee to even Elvis Presley. It is as iconic to Nashville as the Grand Old Opry itself.
The basic chart written with the NNS is based on the tonic or the key of the song. Therefore the 1 chord represents the key of the song. As you can see in example at the top of this article, the key is usually written at the top left of the chart as is the key signature for a song. In the key of C, the numbers would represent the degrees of the C scale as follows:
Since the numbers remain the same regardless of the key signature, once you establish the key of the song, the chords represented by numbers are all relative to that ascribed key. Numbers written without any additional chord voicing or accidental are assumed to be major versions of the ascribed chord. Like traditional chord symbols, voicing like suspensions or dominant 7ths are notated to the right of the chord number. NNS also uses some of the abbreviated or symbolic notations that Jazz charts used like “sus” for suspended voicing or a triangle for major interpretation of the voicing that follows. In NNS, chord accidentals like flats, sharps or naturals are usually notated to the left of the chord number. Inversions like altered bass notes are notated with a slash separating the numbers either to the side or underneath. The additional or subsequent number would represent the bass note of the inversion, not a chord itself. For example, in the key of C, a C chord in first inversion or a C with an E bass would be written as C/E.
Charts written with NNS are the same structurally as traditional notation with measured division or bars. Each measure is represented by a single number or a group of numbers. A single number indicates that the referenced chord is played for all the beats of that measure. Groups of numbers (often referred to as a split bar) are either underlined, enclosed in parentheses or are boxed. Two numbers grouped together would indicate that each number or chord gets half of the number of beats for that measure. If the syncopation is not equal between the chords, often a number will be followed by a dot or dots to indicate different beat spacing. For example, in 4/4 this notation: (1..4) would indicate that the 1 chord gets three beats and the 4 chord gets one beat in the measure. Hash marks can also be used to show beat divisions.
Here is a list of several other rhythmic figures or expressions that are common in the NNS:
1. Diamond – a diamond around a number indicates that the chord should be held for the entire bar. When the diamond has a stem on the right side, it indicates a half note diamond.
2. Marcato – just like classic notation, the “hat” symbol indicates that the note is to be played strongly and choked. The staccato symbol can also be used for this expression.
3. Tie – when a tie connects two measures (often from diamond to diamond) it indicates that the measure is tied to the next and the chord is not re-struck.
4. Push – since you typically don’t have the luxury of rhythmic notation, a push symbol (< or >) is used to indicate that the attack of that chord is either pushed an 1/8 note earlier (<) or an 1/8 note later (>). This is also referred to as the “and” of the previous or subsequent beat.
5. Brackets – often brackets ( [ or ] ) are used to indicate a one measure time signature change
6. Trill – trill markings with a horizontal jagged line indicate rolling the single note of the chord or octaves for that measure.
7. Fermata – just like classic notation, a fermata indicates that the note or chord is held until signaled choke. Often this will be written over a diamond.
8. Mod – when a section of the song modulates or changes key, MOD is written with an indication of how many steps. After this point in the chart, the numbers represent chords in the new modulated key.
9. Ritard – either written out or abbreviated with Rit. it indicates a gradually slowing of the tempo.
The NNS makes song sections very obvious by dividing them with lines or additional space. Here are some common terms used for sectional ID:
1. Intro – this is the first section of bars for a song. Length varies but it precedes the first verse
2. Verse – typically the section of the song that follows the intro and precedes the chorus, pre-chorus or channel
3. Channel – Not always are of a song structure but it part of the pre chorus where the song lifts to the Chorus.
4. Chorus – The section of the song where the hook, signature line or title is presented
5. Turn around or T/A – this is a section that follows the chorus and either gets you back to the verse or takes you to the Bridge.
6. Bridge – like the classical definition, this part of the chart gets you from 2nd or 3rd chorus to subsequent choruses and can also be where modulations usually occur.
7. Outro – the other bookend of the chart that contains the ending for the song.
These terms are of course standard to classical notation. However, used in an NNS chart, they create even more clarity in sectional delineation and make it easy to call out a specific section of the song.
One beautiful aspect of the NNS is that it really develops your ear and strengthens your ability to recognize intervals. Part of my musical training as a classical pianist and a music major in college for a period of time included ear training and theory. The NNS really puts the rudimentary aspect of theory to work. When listening to a song and writing a chart, you start to hear the interval associated moving from chord to chord. As well, it strengthens your ability to improvise and recognize interval relationships.
The Nashville Number System has become so widely used that even classical notation programs like Finale or Sibelius allow you to choose NNS for chords symbols. This gives you a powerful arsenal with the ability to either use slash notation or even specific rhythmic notation for complex syncopation. As a matter of fact, I often chart songs in the key of C just to get the framework down. Then, I transpose the key signature accordingly to fit the chosen key of the singer.
This is a general overview of the Nashville Number System. There is a plethora of books and tutorials that are floating around the internet that expand dramatically on the subject as well as examples of classic songs written in this system. As always in the learning of any new language, practice makes perfect. NNS is just another notational language that is easy to learn and extremely practical. The whole purpose of chord charts is to get a group of musicians on the same page. A chart using NNS can make that possible even with a wide variety of musical skills and abilities. Dive in and crunch your own numbers, my friends.