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The Nashville Number System for Piano: A Beginner’s Guide

Lisa Witt  /  Chording / Aug 4

The Nashville Number System is a must-know tool for piano players of all genres. It helps you quickly transpose chords and communicate with other musicians. In this guide, we’ll explain the Nashville Number System as well as Roman Numeral Analysis. They both use a similar concept.

Table of Contents

When talking about music in terms of “1-5-6-4,” it can sound complicated, but it really isn’t. We’ll show you how this works, step by step!

🔥🎹 HOT TIP! If you’re new to chords, check out our free Chording 101 guide. It’ll tell you everything you need to know about the backbone to piano music: chords!
Keyboard shaped like the Nashville skyline with numbers on it.

1. The Nashville Number System for Piano

In the Nashville Number System, we assign a number to each degree of the scale.

C Major Example

Let’s take a look at C Major. C Major contains the notes C-D-E-F-G-A-B.

C is the first note of the scale, D is the second, and so on. Each note of the scale is called a scale degree.

Nashville Number System explained on piano diagram with notes and scale degrees labelled, C major.

We assign each scale degree a number, and to be honest, that’s the gist of the Nashville Number System! We use these numbers, named after scale degrees, as a shorthand to name chords. We’ll cover that in detail in a moment.

To hammer in this concept, let’s take a look at a minor key example.

A Melodic Minor Example

The concept for A Melodic Minor is similar, but a few extra markings are required to accurately label some scale degrees.

If you can recall the rules for minor scales, a melodic scale is when the sixth and seventh notes are raised a half-step when we play the scale going up.

A Minor Melodic Scale
A-B-C-D-E-F#-G#

In A Minor, where by default there are no sharps and flats, this means we play F sharp and G sharp instead of F and G.

We can represent this in the Nashville Number System by writing #6 and #7.

Keyboard diagram with A minor melodic notes labelled and scale degrees labelled underneath. 6th and 7th notes are labelled #6 and #7.

Scale degrees are pretty straightforward, but how are they used? Let’s look at some naming conventions!

Numbering System for Chords

When someone says “play a ‘one chord’ in C Major,” this really means: “Play the chord built on the first scale degree of the C Major scale.”

If this concept sounds familiar, you’re on to something! Diatonic chords are chords built on each degree of the scale.

If you were going to play a triad shape on top of every note of the C Major scale, you’ll play this:

C Major diatonic whole note triads with notes labelled at bottom and numbers 1-7 on top.

When we say something like “the 1-5-6-4” progression, this just means we’re moving from the 1 chord to the 5 chord, then the 6 chord and then the 4.

Progression of whole note triads: C, G, Am, F. Labelled numbers on top: 1, 5, -6, 4.

In this example, “-6” is used to identify a minor chord. Some people also write minor chords as “6m.”

The 1-5-6-4 progression is one of the most popular chord progressions ever. You’ll find it in pop songs everywhere.

📜🎹 HISTORY BITE: The Nashville Number System was developed in the 1950s for use by the Jordanaires, who were recording music in Nashville, Tennessee.

2. Roman Numeral Analysis

Now, let’s take this one step further and talk about Roman Numeral Analysis. The advantage of using Roman numerals instead of Arabic numbers is that you can use uppercase and lowercase letters. We use uppercase letters to represent major chords and lowercase letters to represent minor chords.

As we’ve mentioned, “-6” and “6m” can be used to notate minor chords too, but this is less common.

Roman Numeral Analysis for Diatonic Chords

Here are the diatonic chords of C Major in Roman Numeral Analysis notation.

C Major diatonic triads in whole notes along standard staff. Notes labelled underneath and Roman numerals on top: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, viio.

*Sidenote: the little “o” symbol after the vii chord means this is a diminished chord. A diminished chord is a stack of minor thirds. A minor chord is a major third stacked on top of a minor third.

Interestingly, in major keys, the ii chord will always be minor, the V chord will always be major, and so on. Here are all the diatonic chords for D Major:

D Major diatonic triads in whole notes along standard staff. Notes labelled underneath and Roman numerals on top: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, viio.

Neat, huh?

3. How to Use Numbers to Transpose Music

So what’s the purpose of learning all these symbols? Well, using numbers is a handy way to talk about music because you’re not tied to key this way.

If your band writes a song in C Major, then decides mid-way through practice to play it in F Major, the number system lets you quickly transpose a song from C Major to F Major.

Transposing a Progression From C Major to F Major

For example, take our favorite 1-5-6-4 progression.

Here’s the progression in C Major.

C Major chord progression in standard notation with C, G, Am, and F triads labelled 1, 5, -6, and 4.

And here’s the same progression, notated with the same numbers but transposed to F Major.

F Major progression of F, C, Dm, and Bb triads on standard notation and numbers 1, 5, -6, 4 above.

With Nashville numbers, you don’t have to go through the trouble of transposing everyone’s sheet music. You just need to write the chord chart in numbers, and then decide on the key later.

The Nashville system is very useful among, say, worship bands who must adjust their key according to the congregation’s needs.

4. Advanced Chord Symbols

Now that we’re comfortable discussing the Nashville Number System for piano, let’s explore it further. After all, we don’t just have major and minor chords. How about slash chords, inversions, and other stuff?

Chord Inversions

Inversions are notated in a similar way to slash chords. The number before the slash indicates the scale degree on which to build your chord. The number after the slash indicates the scale degree to be played with the left hand as a bass note.

As an example, take the first inversion of the C Major chord.

  1. The C Major triad in root position is C-E-G. C is the 1st note of the C Major scale.
  2. The C Major triad in 1st inversion is E-G-C. E is the 3rd note of the C Major scale.
  3. Therefore, C Major in 1st inversion is notated as 1/3 in the Nashville Number System.

1/3

In the Roman Numeral Analysis system, inversions are notated quite differently. Scroll down to the figured bass section if you want to learn more.

Slash Chords

Slash chords are notated the same way as inverted chords. So a G chord in C Major with an E in the bass would look like this: 5/3. (G is the fifth note of the C Major scale, and E is the third note of the C Major scale.)

Seventh Chords

To indicate a seventh chord, add a superscript “7” to your chord. So, in C Major, a dominant 7th (G7) chord will look like this: 57.

Other Symbols

You may encounter other shorthand symbols such as…

5 in a diamond.

Diamond

A diamond symbol means to let a chord ring out for the duration of the measure.

5 with ">" symbol above.

Arrow

Arrows symbolize a “push” in rhythm. “>” often means to play the chord an eighth note later, while “<” may mean playing the chord an eighth note earlier.

Underlines

If a chord changes mid-measure, this may be noted by underlining two chords that belong in the same measure.

Whole note C triad (C-E-G) labelled with 1. Followed by half note F (F-A-C) and G (G-B-D) triads labelled with 4 and 5 and underlined.

People may write their chord charts differently according to habit. If you’re not sure what something means, just ask whoever wrote the music! Then, it may be a good idea to discuss what conventions to take so everyone’s on the same page.

You can find some interesting examples of what chord charts by different musicians look like here and here.

Summary Table

Here’s a handy chart that summarizes what we’ve discussed. Note: this is all in C Major.

Table summarizing what a chord looks like on standard notation, its notation in Nashville system, its notation in Roman numerals, and how it's read out loud. Row 1: 1 chord, I chord, "one chord." Row 2: 5-7 chord, V-7 chord, "five seven chord." Row 3: 4/6 chord, IV-6 chord, "four six" or "four chord in first inversion."

5. BONUS! Figured Bass

The Nashville Number System is similar to Figured Bass, which is a musical notation system that’s been used since the Baroque period.

Figured Bass is a shorthand used by musicians to improvise a bassline or accompaniment called basso continuo.

Here’s an example from the 1689 opera Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell.

Figured bass example from "Thy Hand, Belinda" from Dido and Aeneas opera.
“Thy Hand, Belinda” from Dido and Aeneas (1689) by Henry Purcell (Source)

In general, numbers in Figured Bass indicate what notes above the supplied bass note should be played. However, Figured Bass often omits many notes that are taken as “givens.”

Figured bass is a little more complex than the Nashville shorthand, but the useful thing about this system is that you can very precisely express inversions.

Combined with Roman Numeral Analysis, the root, 1st inversion, and 2nd inversion of the I chord in C Major can be expressed like this:

Figured bass example in standard notation and Roman numeral analysis. Root, first inversion, and 2nd inversion C chord with intervals labelled and Roman Numeral analysis numbers: I, I-6, I-6-4.

“5” and “3” are omitted due to convention.

A Minor Melodic Diatonic Chords

Up for a challenge? Let’s take a stab at deciphering the diatonic chords of the A Melodic Minor scale.

Minor diatonic chords on standard notation with notes labelled and roman numeral analysis labelled: i, ii, III+, IV, V, #vio, #vii0.

Wow, what a doozy! Okay, let’s break down III+ and #vio.

III+

The uppercase “III” means this is a major chord, but the story doesn’t end here. After all, C-E-G is a major chord, so what’s C-E-G#?

C-E-G# sounds unique because it contains an interval called an augmented 5th. The augmented 5th is one half-step “larger” than a typical perfect fifth. A perfect 5th from C is C-G, so sharping the G extends the interval by one half-step.

Standard notation of the III+ chord. C-E-G# with augmented 5th labelled between C and G#.

#vio

A similar concept can be applied to this chord, except we’re going in the opposite direction and narrowing the fifth. Without the F#, the interval between F and C would be a perfect fifth. But by sharping F, we reduce the distance by one half-step and create a diminished 5th.

The sharp in front of the vi chord just means our bottom note, F, is sharped.

Standard notation of #vio chord: F#-A-C, with "diminished 5th" interval labelled between F# and C.

That’s it for now about the Nashville Number System! Every piano player should know this notation system. It’s simpler than standard notation, flexible to use, and gives you space to use your ear and improvise. The next time you write a chord chart, try using this system.


Charmaine Li is a Vancouver writer who has played piano for over 20 years. She holds an Associate diploma (ARCT) from the Royal Conservatory of Music and loves writing about the ways in which music—and music learning—affects the human experience. Charmaine manages The Note.

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