"Songwriting and the Creative Process"
An Internet Tutorial

Lesson 6. The "Nashville" Chord Number System


Nashville is famous for the high standard of its studio musicians. Players from all over the country migrate to Tennessee and strive to become studio sidemen. Competition is fierce and only a handful of the best musicians are thought of as the "A" team.

Still, although Nashville has its own brand of virtuosity it's not based on the same skills that are found in the great orchestras of the world. Chet Atkins who has been one of the most successful producers and record company executives in all of country music is often quoted as saying about his musicians that..."Sure they can read music, but not enough to hurt their playing."

It's true that most of the time in the studios of Nashville the players are not using sheet music per se. Instead they use what are known as "Nashville" chord charts. Before the recording begins, the players will listen usually just once through the song either on tape or sung live. Each musician will make a simple chart listing the chords and with other markings to help him to play the song.

The chords will be designated by simple numbers, sometimes Roman numerals but usually just regular numbers 1, 4, 5, 3, 6, etc. And where a chord has a different note in the base or the inversion needs to be noted, this will be shown by making a slash/ with the bass note written as a scale degree, such as 4/3 or 5/5.

A suspension will be designated with "sus", or just an "s" Any other information such as coda, first and second endings, intro, outro, crescendo, decrescendo, and so forth is written down in a system of arrows, and lines sometimes only decipherable to the musician who wrote it.

These charts are amazingly infallible. An added advantage is that if the producer or the singer should decide at the last minute to raise or lower the key, the same chart works without any amendments since the chords are all designated in their relative position in the scale and those positions remain true no matter what the key.

This method of shorthand is ideal for the songwriter. It is only when the song is finished that a proper lead sheet needs to be made for purposes of showing the song and for copyright.

This course is based on materials from the book, "Songwriting and the Creative Process" by Steve Gillette. Published by Sing Out! Press. Used by permission.

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