Music Theory 201: The Nashville Number System

nashville-number-systemCongratulations on making it to part 3 of our 4 part music theory course. This is where things get interesting.

If you haven’t read the parts 1 and 2 click here to check them out.

In this post we’ll talk about the Nashville Number System and how it makes the creation and writing of new music SUPER easy.

So far you’ve learned all about time & rhythm, and you’ve built on that with the basics of notes, scales and chords.

But you’ve actually also gotten a taste of the number system in music. Remember how we put numbers to the notes of scales and chords in the last lesson?

That’s the same idea behind the Nashville Number System – an important concept to understand.

You’ll be able to come up with sicker melodies, harmonies, chord progressions and songs in general if you can understand this system and how music flows.

How the Number System in Music Works

Basically what you do is assign a number to each note of the scale you’re playing. If you don’t know about notes and scales read our music theory 102 page.

For us (at this early stage in our learning) we’re going to use the numbers 1-8. You can also assign numbers passed this (9 – 16), but that’s beyond what we’re doing right now.

Let’s use the C Major Scale as an example.

In case you forgot, the C-Major Scale goes a lil something like this:

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

So all you have to do is assign the numbers 1-8 to each of these piano notes.

What you end up with is:

C = 1

D = 2

E = 3

F = 4

G = 5

A = 6

B = 7

C = 8 (a.k.a octave)

What this means is that the C note is the 1st tone of the C Major Scale. The D note is the 2nd tone of the C Major Scale, the E note is the 3rd tone of the C Major Scale and so on, and so on.

I have no idea why they call it the Nashville number system, but who cares, really?

Why is this important? Well, when you’re building piano chords, chord progressions and playing songs, knowing the numbers of each note in the scale helps you know what to play NOW and what to play NEXT so whatever you’re playing sounds good.

And if you decide you want to play a particular song, but in a different key (i.e. you want to play the song using the F scale instead of the C scale to give it a more unique sound) then it’s easy to transpose the song into that key. (Transpose is a fancy word that means “translating” a song into a different key/note. Sort of…)

Or if you want to play a C Major 7th chord (the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th tones of the C major scale), knowing the different numbers of the scale will let you easily build and play the chord.

So it’s an important thing to know.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to do this without straight up just memorizing all 12 major scales and all 12 minor scales

But once you do – making and playing music will be soooooo easy.

Here’s the various scales you should start memorizing:

Music Scales and the Number System

Major Scales1st Tone (I)2nd Tone (ii)3rd Tone (iii)4th Tone (IV)5th Tone (V)6th Tone (vi)7th Tone (vii^o)
C# / Db MajorC#D#EF#G#AB
D# / Eb MajorEbFGAbBbCD
E MajorEF#G#ABC#D#
F# / Gb MajorF#G#A#BC#D#E# (F note)
G# / Ab MajorAbBbCDbEbFG
A# / Bb MajorBbCDEbFGA
B MajorBC#D#EF#G#A#
Minor Scales1st Tone (i)2nd Tone (ii^o)3rd Tone (III)4th Tone (iv)5th Tone (v)6th Tone (VI)7th Tone (VII)
C# / Db MinorC#D#EF#G#AB
D# / Eb MinorD#E#F#G#A#BC#
F MinorFGAbBbCDbEb
F# / Gb MinorF#G#ABC#DE
G# / Ab MinorG#A#BC#D#EF#
A# / Bb MinorBbCDbEbFGbAb

Memorize those scale numbers before moving onto learning the next musical scale. You need to know those by heart so that if I was to ask “What’s the 7th tone of the C Major Scale” you’d be able to say “B” without even blinking an eye.

We’ve made it super easy for you to memorize these scales (and the root triad chord and 7th chord of each scale) with our Music Theory Cheat Sheets!

Download them today! They’re a must-have and they’re free, just sign up below:

It’s a really good idea to start memorizing these notes/scales before moving on to chord progressions. It’ll make things easier. But if you want to continue right away, you can do that as well. Just make sure you actually work on memorizing those scales!

Next up, we’re going to talk about Chord Progressions and the Circle of Fifths. These are patterns of chords that you’ll use to write songs, melodies, harmonies and more in your music.

Back to Music Theory Section