I learned most of my songs in the Major key and used a number system to learn it to be able to transpose the song easily. I now have a minor song I am learning and originally used the Major numbers to learn it.

ie for this song in Em I named the Em chord 6 (as in realtion to the Major scale, opposed to 1 for its minor key) and so on for all the other chords. This has the advantage that I know 6 is a minor chord in relation to a major root. However I have been told its better to number the scale from the minor root, in this case Em = 1. However I find that I don't get used to thinking in this way (I often think 1 is Major), are there any techniques to make it easier?

Eg for this song (Em scale) I can write it in these 2 ways

|Em                  |Am
|6                   |2
|1                   |4
 Left my fear by the  side of the road
|C                 |D
|4                 |5
|6                 |7
 Hear You speak You won’t let go

What is the better way to number it to learn this song better long term?

  • I wonder if the down voters could explain. I don't see the reason.
    – amalgamate
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 14:46
  • 2
    @amalgamate - I've questioned the phenomenon several times, and been given short shrift. Anonimity rules, apparently!
    – Tim
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 15:17
  • 1
    I get stuck in this pattern of thinking also. I do think it would be better to analyze a song in a minor key from a minor perspective.
    – Caleb
    Commented May 25, 2015 at 13:25
  • 2
    @Josiah To my way of thinking, just because a question is about something that is possibly flawed, does not mean the question is flawed. It more means that the OP should be asking questions and seeking knowledge, and is even wise and smart to do so.
    – amalgamate
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 16:02
  • 1
    @amalgamate - that's why I'm not a downvoter. :)
    – Josiah
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 18:16

3 Answers 3


I'd say to always use the key-chord as 1.

I'm a classical guy and never really got NNS. Maybe this is somewhat from ignorance, so downvotes are welcome. :) My biggest problem with many chord description systems is that they don't handle complexity with clarity or can't describe some chords - half-diminished seventh chords are a typical case.

There are cases where each numbering system works well, and sometimes simplicity and easy of use really is the most important. Use the best tool for the job, and as long as you can justify it, I don't care if you use a catspaw or the back of a hammer.

  1. Simplicity. Suppose you want to do something a bit different with the piece harmonically. If I'm using a 1-based system, I know that I can mix things up a bit in major or minor keys by using a secondary dominant (major 2 seventh chord) chord right before a (major) 5 chord, often called the "Five of Five" because it's the dominant chord to the dominant. In a minor key, somewhat complex harmonies like that become much more challenging if you're starting on 6 (major 7 seventh chord resolves to a major 2 chord and then to a 6). Describing more complex structures and chord qualities will run into similar problems. A modulation of the same harmonies to the parallel minor key would be another place where using a 1-based system would help.

  2. Portability. While it might take a little time to reorient yourself to minor keys based on 1, you'll probably find that making your chord progressions "portable between operating systems (keys)" will be worth it in the long run.

  3. Communication. This is probably the weakest reason, so I saved it for last, but using a widely-accepted harmonic numbering system will make communicating with other musicians that much easier. If you're writing a new song and describing it someone else, a shared language will become very important.

Every system should be able to describe anything in music - it become a question of simplicity and easy of use. It's not a matter of "can and can't", it's a matter of fluency.

In non-Western music or modern/post-modern music the numbering systems break down. In that case, the best tool for the job might be a cipher system or something else entirely. The point is, use the tool that works best for the job.

  • thx mate, sorry for the slow reply!
    – Nikos
    Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 4:04
  • finally accepted!
    – Nikos
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 12:44

There's no reason, really, that it's better the other way. If you keep thinking as you have been, it works for you (and me !). When it has to be translated into real chords for a particular key, then the real chords will be written. At that point, anyone playing the piece will know what to play. I, IV and V in a major key will be the same letter names as i, iv and v in a minor key, if that helps to change over.

There may be a slight problem with any number system in a minor key in that the dominant (5, or in your reckoning 3!) can be major or minor - more often major. I tend to use lower case and capitals to stop any misunderstandings. I feel that either using lower case or 'm' for minor chords solves the problem.

Check out the Nashville Number System.

  • NNS is pretty similar to what I was using thanks. I will make the investment to learn minor numbers properly now!
    – Nikos
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 8:42
  • 1
    @Nikos: If you learn NNS then you have a standard that you can use and share with others. It is good to follow standards, as they open you to a community of knowledge and participation.
    – amalgamate
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 14:45
  • @amalgamate - yes, except NNS can stray from the straight and narrow, and I find some bits are not as crystal clear as they should be, especially when hand-written.
    – Tim
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 15:01
  • I am certainly a poor messenger here, as I have no experience with it, and am unlikely to ever bother, but I think it's worth learning something that is actually used by others even if it is flawed. There are times when I wish I did know it.
    – amalgamate
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 15:09
  • @amalgamate - it's certainly worth getting to grips with NNS, but more important, I think, is to be able to see or know a song in one key, and be able to play it straight in any other key. That's probably a more useful skill - I need it all the time depping or accompanying at open mic gigs.
    – Tim
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 15:14

The standard way that I learned in music school is that in a major key, the tonic-subdominant-dominant chords are all major and therefore are notated in upper case Roman numerals: I - IV - V. Arabic numbers are for individual notes, for example "3" is the third note in the scale (starting from the bottom).

For a minor key, generally speaking tonic is minor, subdominant is minor, and dominant is major, because usually one is working in harmonic minor, with a raised seventh (the leading tone). Minor chords are notated in lower case Roman numerals: i - iv - V.

I only gave three chords, as examples, but all the possible chords would be notated this way.

Your description of labeling chords as though you were in the relative major key reminds me of traveling to a vastly different time zone and wearing two watches, one set to each time zone -- the one you were in the day or the week before, and the one where you are now. As long as you're aware of the new time zone (the new key), I suppose it's okay to hold onto your awareness of the old key. But as you get more comfortable thinking in terms of the new key, you may find the old key awareness falling by the wayside.

  • thx mate, sorry for the slow reply!
    – Nikos
    Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 4:05

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