What are Nashville Numbers? The Songwriter’s Guide to A Helpful Music System
I was relatively new to Nashville Numbers when I started writing my book, but over time I’ve gotten a little more acquainted with them.
If you’ve never heard of this term, you might be wondering “what are Nashville Numbers and why would I need to know about them?” Short answer: You don’t if you aren’t a studio musician or a songwriter! If you’re mildly curious or plan on entering this world of music anytime soon, read on to learn more:
What is the purpose of Nashville Numbers?
People often write songs in a particular key. For our purposes, we’ll use the key of C because it’s easy.
So, you’ve written a song and you wrote it in C. You find a band and a singer, but the singer tries the song and it is out of their range. What now? You have several options:
- Transpose the song into the key the singer prefers
- Find a different singer
- Throw the whole song away
- Use Nashville Numbers
Obviously you don’t want number 3, and of the remaining options, number 4 is by far the easiest! With Nashville Numbers, we use the numbers that refer to the chords of the song. For the key of C, your I chord would be C. IV would be F, V would be G. So when you hand the musicians their sheet music, they have I, IV, V instead of chords or notes.
Now let’s say the singer feels far more comfortable singing in G. You’re okay with this, and the musicians all know this key as well. You don’t have to do any further work in changing the song, thanks to Nashville Numbers. I becomes G, IV becomes C, and V becomes D.
This is also helpful in live situations. Sometimes singers like to sing in a different key live, to preserve their voice or if they are sick. Nashville numbers allow the players to simply adjust to any key (provided they know that key, and most do!)
Singers don’t really need to use Nashville Numbers (in my experience), it just helps them find the best key and helps the band accommodate them.
You may be asking, “why should I care what key the singer wants? It’s my song!” This is very true and you can certainly keep searching until you find someone who can sing in that key. However, if a singer can’t physically hit those notes, you’re stuck either searching for someone else (which can take a while) or changing the key to fit their needs. I have run into this situation with male songwriters who write melodies for me. It’s difficult to write a song for a female to sing when you don’t have the same range, and vice versa. I’ve written songs for males that ended up being way too high, simply because it’s hard to gauge where someone else’s voice falls. Being flexible with your key will ensure that the best version of your song is created!
Please note: This was only a brief overview of Nashville Numbers. There are many other components to it including other chord types, rhythms and so on. If you don’t intend on using it there is no need to study it further, but you can read more about it here if you’re interested!