Recently, a couple of my bandmates were talking about a technique they use called Nashville Numbers. It's similar to writing out chords, but instead uses numbers. These numbers are a pattern that can be used in a way that you will always have your bearings no matter if a song is transposed or not.

I'm new to this technique, but it seems to make total sense. Can someone explain it?

  • Hmm @Matthew-read - your edit has changed the question away from the one I answered. I think there was a valid question there - "I know what it is; how do I learn it?"
    – slim
    Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 11:48
  • @slim Feel free to edit it back a bit, I just want to avoid the list problem or subjectivity with "best".
    – user28
    Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 15:41

4 Answers 4


It's based on music theory.

For a simple example, let's say you're playing a song in "C major". Your root chord is "1", which is C. Your fourth, is "F", which is "4". Your fifth is "G", and equates to "5". Those numbers come from the steps in the scale:

    C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
    1        4  5

When you want to transpose, it's simple if you understand your scales. Transposing to "D" would mean "D" is 1, "G" is 4, "A" is 5, and so on.

I'm not really sure why they'd call it Nashville Numbering since it's been in use in music notation for years and years, except was written using roman-numerals, "I", "IV", "V".

There are lots of references on the interwebs, so a few minutes searching should dig up a lot more information.

  • "How to Read..." link no longer points to the intended web page. Removed for now.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jan 1, 2022 at 1:12

In the question, you seem to demonstrate that you understand the notation perfectly well. All that remains is to learn to apply it in "real time" when playing.

The purpose of Nashville Numbering is to notate the chord changes in a song, without tying it to a specific key.

If I notated Jailhouse Rock with C, F, G chords, then I'm telling the reader the song is in C. Many musicians would be able to transpose that on-the-fly. That is, if someone said "hey, let's do it in E instead", they'd play E, A, B chords. But still, the sheet says that C is the "right" key.

Marking it up with numbers -- I, IV, V -- or 1, 4, 5 -- makes it clear that you're presenting a chord progression that you'll happily see transposed to any key.

To become a fast reader of numbered chords, it's good to learn functional sets of chords in various keys. Start with the "three chord trick" I, IV, V in the keys rock'n'roll bands like to use:

  • C, F, G
  • D, G, A
  • E, A, B
  • G, C, D
  • A, D, E

(Where's F? Certainly, learn this in F - but it's not a favourite key for guitarists because I and IV are both barre chords. Later on -- if you think you're going to need them -- learn them all, including keys beginning on sharps and flats.)

Just find some three-chord songs, mark them up with I, IV, V, and practice playing them in all those keys.

Then add VI - the relative minor -- and practice some songs that include that, in all those keys.

From then on it should be pretty clear how to proceed: more keys, more chords.

Of course, if you encounter a number you've not learned in this way -- say a song throws in a II before you get to learning those -- it's easy to work out what the chord is. In C major, what's the second note in the scale? D. If you play a D chord in the key of C, is it major or minor? Minor. So a II in C is D minor.

Some people choose to explicitly include the "m" for minor, and use Arabic numbers. So instead of II it would be 2m. That's redundant information, but it saves some thinking as you read, so why not?

  • I think I may have confused you... Check that Functional Harmony link, obviously the concept of functional harmony (what you are attempting to explain), predates Nashville by a few centuries (1776 actually); you are kind of describing regular "western", "functional" harmony. Except the minor chords are expressed lower case... so all seven diatonic chords are I ii iii IV V vi vii7b5, this is "Roman Numeral Analysis".[en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nashville_number_system]; it basically says the same thing I'm saying, it's informal, "simplified", "resembles" the Roman Numeral system... Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 11:22
  • Who cares which name came first and by how many centuries? The above is a good way to learn to play numbered chords.
    – slim
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 11:24
  • Because if you don't know what the name of what you're trying to learn is, it makes it harder to learn. If you keep looking up "Nashville Number System" all you will find is basically that Wiki page. If you look up "Roman Numeral Analysis", or "functional harmony", or "music theory" you will find books upon books explaining exactly what you just tried to say... Here... [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_numeral_analysis]... The only thing that clearly makes "Nashville System" different is not using Roman Numerals; and being simple and easy to explain (sometimes that's a big plus). Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 11:37
  • My long answer did go to a pretty high complexity, I was showing how confusing it would be to use all Arabic numerals... you probably may not have read that far; Using only Arabic (1,2,3,etc; "Nashville") isn't a good way to learn, it's really limited, even you started talking about Roman Numerals (even if incorrectly). There's this huge world of musical language you miss if you never play more than a triad (3-note chord), when you add more notes than 3, things start to get messy. It's called theory; How would you notate a V7#9b5 in the Nashville system? Who knows? it's informal. Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 11:55
  • Regarding the last paragraph: Unlike Roman numerals, Nashville numbers are always assumed to be major unless explicitly notated otherwise. So while II in RNA is understood to be a minor (or diminished — in a minor key) chord, 2 in Nashville is always major regardless the key. 2m or 2dim would be required if a "true" II chord is needed.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jan 1, 2022 at 1:26

The Nashville Number System is a direct translation of standard chord symbols in which letter names are replaced by scale degrees.

For a piece in the key of C major:

C       = 1
Cm      = 1m
D       = 2
Dm7     = 2m7
Eb      = 3b
EbM7    = 3bM7
F/A     = 4/6
Fdim/G  = 4dim/5
G7b5/Bb = 57b5/7b
G#aug   = 5#aug
and so forth.

This allows for easier transposition provided the musician has a solid knowledge of scales.

For a detailed explanation, including rhythmic notation, see Wikipedia: Nashville Number System.


It's a shorthand chord charting system based on the principals of diatonic music theory, specifically identified by it's use of Arabic Numerals to denote diatonic harmony (instead of Roman like everyone else since roughly 1800A.D.); but it's only a chord charting system for easy transposition, not a replacement or the source of Numerical Analysis in music.

Numerical analysis has been around for centuries... multiple styles of music have some form of this specialized for the style... most predate it actually, I'm not aware of any others being declared a "system" and marketed as a replacement for basic music theory; some sources I've found on it treat it as such (basic theory)... here are some site links covering this "new math"... If you read through the comment sections on the different pages you'll see that this is tends to create those "religious" type arguments.

Call the IV the 4 chord or the "four" chord or hold up four fingers... or heck... I could write out a chart using |||| for the four chord (like 1=I=|, 2=II=||, 3=III=|||, 4=IV=||||), I can't draw a line across the 4 pipes to represent 5 (or V). It's been in use for centuries.

Why do I say this causes "Religious" arguments? Because even while every one of these sources identifies it as a system for charting and transposing... There is a large group of musicians who apparently believe that this is the source of the concept of referring to chords by their number or diatonic function. Obviously everyone else in the world familiar with Music Theory knows this is wrong; it's like believing the Sun is the center of the Universe. This is a quick easy way to use basic theory (written slightly non- traditionally) used to notate songs in an easy to transpose way. If you've never run across numbering chords before it didn't originate in Nashville; this particular "style" of it did, but the concept of numbering chords in did not.

Referring to the "IV" chord as the "IV" chord isn't new just because you use "4" instead of "IV"... People of every style of music based on the 12-note western system call the IV chord the IV chord (or "4"... "tomato=tomato", "a rose by any other name is still a rose").

Those caveats aside it's a commonly used method for country/western music... if your belief system encompasses that as the entirety of music, you might believe this is actually music theory instead of a Notation system... If you feel that way... this IS theory. ("We have both kinds of music here, Country AND Western" - The Blues Brothers). It really only works well for simple songs that only use diatonic triads; you can do a whole lot with that, but it essentially ignores anything more complex ("nothing to see above the 5th of the chord here... see... there's nothing up my sleeves"), if you like to alter your 7th, 9th, 11th, or 13th chords, they don't exist in this particular "Religion" that's not "Music" apparently (I'm being silly to make a point... don't try to Notate Coltrane's "Giant Steps" changes or Metallica's "Master of Puppets" using this, while both of them are wildly different from each other, neither style can be easily Notated using the Nashville Numbering System, it's not made for that, however... I can analyze both using Roman Numeral Analysis... because it actually IS a system of Musical Theory Analysis).

As you read through all these explanations keep in mind that it's pretty much limited to diatonic Triads... Oh, he's got a vii7b5 (7- halfdiminished 7th if you're not familiar with Roman Numerals), that's a diatonic 7th chord, but every other thing deals with altering just the triad. It introduces slash/compound chords for a little more complexity... a 5/4 would be a IV7suss9 sound (5-/4 would give us a b9 as the minor 3rd in the V chord 1, m3, 5 of the "5-" chord over the root of the IV chord finally! some chromatic alteration!).





There's an interview with Chas Williams (he has a book out on it too) at GuitarThinker.com

CHAS WILLIAMS I play guitar, slide guitars and dobro. After a couple of semesters at Berklee College of Music, in 1979, I moved to Nashville. I learned the Nashville Number System while working in Steve Bivin's writer's nights bands and doing demo sessions. At a writer's night, the band backed up 20 to 30 songwriters. We would play their original songs with no rehearsal, just number charts. We wrote most of the charts ourselves and recieved great ear training taking dictation from thousands of song demos.

Check out that interview...

Nate: What is one thing about the Nashville Number System you think most people that are new to it don’t understand?

Chas: A lot of people assuming that the 2, 3 and 6 chords are minor; like in a diatonic chord progression. However, in the NNS, no chord is minor unless you designate minor with a minus sign after the number.

That's interesting... I wonder if this grows out of how a pedal steel guitar works, I actually studied with a pedal steel player (2nd guitar teacher), at the time we didn't get up to that point. My point with that is that you'll notice he's in the picture with a dobro.

It is a system for short hand charting in a very informal manner, It came about as a quick way of outlining country/western/rock & roll songs in the 50's. It was developed by Neal Mathews, Jr.

As a member of The Jordanaires, he worked with artists such as Patsy Cline, Red Foley, Johnny Horton, Ferlin Husky, Jim Reeves and George Jones. They group also served as backup vocalists for pop music artists such as Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Connie Francis and Julie Andrews. They are best known, however, as the backup vocalists for Elvis Presley for 15 years. Matthews and the group also toured extensively around the world and recorded a number of their own albums, winning a Grammy Award for Best Southern, Country, or Bluegrass Album.

At this point a couple things should be pointed out, depending on the style of music you like and are learning, this may or may not work well for you. If you're a slide player you'll love this, or if you are playing guitar where you are changing keys with a Capo.

This is a method of Notation that is really useful for transcribing songs of these styles and representing them in a pretty informal shorthand, as noted in the Wiki article, this is similar to Figured Bass.

Figured bass, or thoroughbass, is a kind of integer musical notation used to indicate intervals, chords, and non-chord tones, in relation to a bass note. Figured bass is closely associated with basso continuo, an accompaniment used in almost all genres of music in the Baroque period, though rarely in modern music. Other systems for denoting or representing chords include: plain staff notation, used in classical music, Roman numerals, commonly used in harmonic analysis, macro symbols, sometimes used in modern musicology, and various names and symbols used in jazz and popular music.

If you wanted to rock out some Baroqueimprovised keyboard accompaniment you should probably check that out.

If you're a Jazz guy, you'll probably want to learn Roman Numeral Analysis,.

In music, Roman numeral analysis involves the use of Roman numerals to represent chords. In the most common day to day use, Roman numerals are used so the musician may understand the progression of chords in a piece. The actual chord names (e.g. C, F, F♯, etc.) are substituted in place of the Roman numerals once the key of the piece has been decided. This allows progressions to be easily transposed to any key. In essence, it is a way to abstract the chord structure of a piece.

Conceptually they are all explanations of the same thing; the Nashville Numbering system and Figured bass are both styles of Musical Notation.

Roman Numeral Analysis is analysis though, it's not notation; something completely different conceptually... however it's so related that all of these things fall under Music Theory.

In the end... it's a fundamental system of shorthand notation for musical styles originating out of the Nashville tradition. The only criticism I have of some of the explanations of this probably stem from the marketing strategies that have built out of it. The fundamental theory behind the music is the same, this isn't the source of numerical analysis of music in any way, it's a charting style that is based on historical numeral analysis and is specialized for a particular style of music. If you are really searching for a deeper fundamental understanding of music, the theoretical harmonic possibilities that are available... then it's a little limited, that's not it's purpose (to explain theory), it's just a set of directions. (don't let my use of the word "just" disturb you; directions are really important).

If you're attracted to this idea because of the analytic/theoretical ideas it may have introduced you to and not as an attempt to explore the "Nashville Sound", you may be really interested in music theory and the historical Roman Numeral style of analysis.

If you just like learning different styles of music, and tend to study them all, this is how the Nashville sound works. All styles of music tend to have some kind of shorthand charting style, particularly for idiomatic instrumental oddities that vary from style to style, region to region.

In music, the concept of idiom has been applied to a wide variety of phenomena; however, the term is commonly associated with the use of distinctive instrumental resources. The mechanics of musical instruments commonly influence how the music itself is organized. Like spoken utterances, musical passages can be characterized as more or less idiomatic depending on the extent to which the music relies on instrument-specific effects.
Ethnomusicologists frequently point to instrumental idioms as having had marked impacts on the character of music-making in different cultures (e.g., Baily, 1985; DeWitt, 1998; Yu, 1977; Yung, 1980). Similarly, historical musicologists have often pointed to physical characteristics of performance, especially in relation to arrangements of musical works made for different instrumentation (e.g., Dreyfus, 1998; Le Guin, 1997; Mohr, 1972; Morehen, 1994; Parkins, 1983; Shepherd, 1995; Shao, 1997; Ung, 1981). Jazz and blues musicians often stress the importance of idiomatic instrumental techniques in improvisation (e.g., Richardson, 1996; Sudnow, 1978, 1979; Walser, 1993). Electroacoustic musicians can identify the vintage of electronic works by the characteristic sounds or gestures associated with specific hardware devices or formerly popular algorithms (e.g., Henry, 1970). Musical genres have been identified in which the idiomatic aspects of one sound source are imitated by another – such as the vocal imitation of the Greek gaida bagpipe by traditional singers (Sarris & Tzevelekos, 2008). Musical idiomaticism has been addressed in a variety of descriptive and statistical ways by music scholars (Horton, 1986; Jiranek, 1971).

The point is... every style of music, and every instrument for that matter has it's own "Dialect", (metaphorically speaking) We're all speaking the same language of music (within the context of "Functional Harmony"); all these different charting styles are like idiomatic dialects of functional harmony, they specify all the idiosyncrasies that are introduced by specific instrumentation and styles.

Learn whatever style of notation that is germane to your Genre... but keep in mind the bigger picture of music theory and don't confuse the two, instead realize that they have to correlate and agree or there is something wrong somewhere in your understanding.

I originally came across this in a search for different ways to notate music online, this pretty much circumvents the need for special software for really basic songs as you need no staff notation... for the same reason, it's quite limited (but it's supposed to be).

Why do you see all these people arguing about this and music theory in the comments sections on these pages? Because to those familiar with traditional Music Theory & Roman Numeral Analysis... this looks exactly like poorly done harmonic analysis by someone who's never studied it (sorry, but at first glance that's what I thought it was), it isn't that at all... unless that's the extent of your musical knowledge, in which case... it kind of is... Here's a metaphor using computer programming as an example of a cranky old guy like me arguing over a "technical" religious argument...

("WTH! You can't call over-optimization OOP... OOP means Object Oriented Programming.... it's the kind of programming that you're doing incorrectly because you don't know what it is, because you don't know what it is you've screwed your web page up and now you're calling it "Over Optimization" and want to call that "OOP"... well if you knew OOP in the first place (object oriented programming), we wouldn't be having this discussion of why your web page doesn't show up in Google... it's because you don't fundamentally know what OOP is, and you screwed it up and now Google doesn't understand what you're trying to do... it's not going to help to get a bunch of people together on a message board and make up a new acronym for something that doesn't exist and discuss that instead of actually learning Object Oriented Programming" NOTE* If your SEO guy thinks OOP means over-optimization... fire him, at the least, send him to school, he's missing the forest for the trees...)

  • 1
    -1. Uppity, doesn't answer question. I'm going to start calling fifths on a piano "power chords" from now on.
    – naught101
    Commented Sep 10, 2012 at 23:15
  • @naught101... I actually came back that night to change my answer thinking I might have been a touch harsh... but someone had already voted it up... so I left it alone. I will expand on my answer above with some examples to show what I'm talking about. But he asked what the best way to learn how to notate music by function rather than absolute pitch (technically, that's what his post asked). The best way to learn more is to realize you're asking about "functional" theory and not the "Nashville Numbering System" (which quickly becomes a big mess when dealing with anything that is not diatonic). Commented Dec 4, 2012 at 22:51
  • 3
    Confused by this answer. Roman numerals are the Nashville system.
    – slim
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 10:44
  • That's my whole point... They aren't, read the figured bass link, read any "western" harmony textbooks, using Roman numerals in music harmony is a centuries old concept. Specifically... the Nashville system only uses Arabic (no Roman at all), it's just a quick way to jot down diatonic triads without getting into a bunch of complex theory and having to explain the concept of Roman numerals. [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diatonic_function#Functional_harmony] Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 10:53

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