Ordinarily, Nashville numbering is simply used to denote the chords to be played according to the degrees of the scale, and where the chords vary, the custom is to use accidentals or additional notation to show deviation from this (e.g. b7 or 4m).

My question is regarding songs where the deviation from Ionian isn't simply for the odd chord here and there, but the song is almost entirely in one of the modes of the scale (the particular song in question is 'No-one but You' by Hillsong, which is in D mixolydian).

Personally I've notated this song w.r.t the Ionian mode, which to me would convey the song best to a musician who had never heard it before (which, arguably, is exactly the point of Nashville), but both the original artist and other musicians I play with refer to the song as being in 'D' (and specifically not D mixolydian).

One specific argument in favour of notating w.r.t Ionian is that when a song is minor (i.e. Aeolian mode) the relative major tonic is used. However, I was wondering how this extends for other modes, and if there is indeed a widely accepted convention for this?

  • So if it's 'in D', NNS would be b7, 4, 1? With 1=D here. I dare say a lot of players wouldn't even consider 'D Mixolydian'. I didn't for many years. But since D sounds like 'home', stick with that. Not sure how that would be signed, though - probably two fingers up (as in D=2#). Rather than the home key of G (1 finger up).
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 6, 2020 at 14:35
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    "Both the original artist and other musicians I play with refer to the song as being in 'D' (and specifically not D mixolydian)", this is a pretty standard rock convention, mixolydian vs. major often isn't stated when the key centre is given.
    – Esther
    Commented Oct 6, 2020 at 15:00
  • @PeterSmith just because everyone else does something doesn't make it correct ;-) I agree with you both that it isn't stated, but that's out of a lack of understanding. It's a teachable moment, not something to just shrug at and leave as-is. Commented Oct 6, 2020 at 15:33
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    @MattTaylor It's very common for rock songs to be in a kind of blues-influenced tonality that's somewhere in between major, mixolydian and minor - i.e. lots of modal mixture going on. That may not be the case here, but the convention of referring to only the root and not trying to pin down the tonality too hard is a very sensible one for many songs. Commented Oct 6, 2020 at 15:50
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    @MattTaylor - laudable as it is - some players just don't want to know. And that's their right. Many's the time I've played with someone who needs to explain the order of chords in a song. And when I say 'so it's a standard 12 bar then', they look at me and try again. Sometimes one has to 'go with the flow'... I've had bands argue that 'Pretty Woman' (Orbison) is definitely in E, and consequently don't bother trying to explain any more! Smile and forget it. Ignorance is bliss...
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 6, 2020 at 16:31

4 Answers 4


You combining two systems and that is causing confusion.

The Nashville numbering system was developed in the Twentieth century by American pop musicians, and it is perfect for quickly conveying necessary information to fellow musicians. It is great for conveying pop, rock, country, and other styles, but not great for analyzing European classical music, and it is not really designed for analytical purposes.

The system of modes that include Ionian and Mixolydian comes from Europe and is much older. It has changed and developed over hundreds of years, in order to suit the needs of the time and context.

A mode is not a key. The idea of a key comes from tonal music, which is really separate from modal music. Tonal music is based around the idea of a tonic (in your case D) and the hierarchy of pitches relating to it. The keys are either major or minor. So, even though we often associate D major with the Ionian mode, you don't have to look very far to find music that uses additional notes. The kinds of music that use NNS often use the exact chord you are asking about - the flat 7, but nonetheless, the song is in D major.

That doesn't mean modes aren't useful in this kind of music. For instance, a lead guitar player improvising over this song would probably find it useful to use the Mixolydian mode. But even though you can solo over a song in Mixolydian, that doesn't mean the song is in Mixolydian.

These are two separate systems that can be used to describe the music. Neither one is wrong and each on their own is totally logical, but if you try to inter-mingle them, you can create confusion.

  • So if we look at Sweet Child of Mine, it has a chord progression of Db-B-Gb-Db and the melody uses notes primarily from the Gb major scale. In the NNS, would we call this song Gb major and that it has a 5-4-1-5 progression, even though the tonic of the song is Db?
    – Tenfour04
    Commented Sep 7, 2023 at 16:19

However, I was wondering how this extends for other modes, and if there is indeed a widely accepted convention for this?

There is, and it's merely an extension of lead sheet analysis which is the basis of the NNS anyway.

Mixo triads are: 1 2m 3d 4 5m 6m b7

So if this were Roman numeral analysis the verse D-C-G-D becomes I-bVII-IV-I or 1-b7-4-1 for NNS. The chorus C-G-D becomes b7-4-1. The bridge seems to follow the same patterns.


There are three separate, but related issues here.

  1. As @Enigmachrysalis points out, if you really want NNS-based mixolydian, then the triads are 1 2m 3d 4 5m 6m b7. However,

  2. This song is not in mixolydian. It's in D major. The C chord is part of a secondary subdominant relative to the G chord. The Roman numeral analysis would be IV/IV IV I. (Note that calling IV/IV "bVII" is not wrong, but IV/IV clarifies the descending fourths progression.) In addition,

  3. A truly modal mixolydian song would put much greater emphasis on the b7, to distinguish the melody and harmony from major. For example, mixolydian harmony would use minor-V and bVII in harmonically prominent places. In "No One but You", minor-V is not used, and bVII (that is, IV/IV) only appears as a transitional chord — not a strong enough usage to conjure mixolydian.


My thinking on this is motivation centric. The following different motivations have different outcomes. Taking the familiar Sweet Home Alabama as the use case, is it in G=5411 or D=1b744 ? NNS was developed for ease of use.

  • Motive: Ease of Use The key signature is G with one sharp. The home key feeling is ambiguous but might feel like D to some. Perhaps for simplicity notate as 5411 and the goal of easy communication and key changes is easily facilitated with the NNS congruently matching the key signature. Note the D is NOT functioning like a 5 chord.

  • Motive: Functional Harmonic Analysis If D felt like the home key, you could chart it with the key signature of D with 2 sharps, which then clearly identifies the C as a b7 accidental. The D is functioning like a 1 chord not a 5 chord.

I'm more motivated by ease of use and so tend to disambiguate between the key signature and the home feel. I'm comfortable notating Sweet Home in G as 5411 for communication, but also conceptualise it as 1b744 where its useful. I've tried NNS using the home feel key instead of the key signature and the resulting chart has been significantly less readable.

Most people would notate a blues in E as 1411 4411 5411 rather than some other frame of reference. How about a minor blues with a b65 turnaround like Thrill is Gone. I'd go for the simplest style of communication for real time usage rather offline harmonic analysis.

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