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 Oct 6 '20 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. – Peter Smith Oct 6 '20 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. – Matt Taylor Oct 6 '20 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. – topo Reinstate Monica Oct 6 '20 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 Oct 6 '20 at 16:31

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 the 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.


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-natural is part of a secondary dominant relative to the G chord. The Roman numeral analysis would be I V/IV IV. (Note that calling V/IV "bVII" is not wrong, but V/IV clarifies the role and any confusion over the mode.) 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, V/IV) only appears as a transitional chord -- no a strong enough usage to conjure mixolydian.

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