One of the toughest things to do as a drummer is to follow along with other musicians. You probably think of yourself as leading the band by laying down the groove. However, it’s the tone and melody of the voice and instruments set over your beat that make a song.
This is where musicianship comes into play. And I know what you’re thinking. “Oh great, now I’m supposed to learn to read sheet music for all the other instruments?” Well, not necessarily. However, there are a few ways to up your game without having to take things that far. Here’s one.
This is the Nashville Number System for drummers explained in a simple way. It should immediately improve your understanding of chord progressions and your ability to follow any song your band wants to play.
The basis for the Nashville Number System is chord progressions. This simply means the different chords that are played one after another to form a song. You can think of them as steps on a staircase, except that musicians can jump up and down between chords a bit easier than you can on the stairs. Yet, leaping around on stairs is not recommended.
So what are chords?
In a very basic sense, chords are notes that are played together at the same time. That’s all. Think about a piano – anywhere you smash more than one of your fingers down at the same time makes a chord. And even though some will sound pretty terrible, they all still have names and can be worked out based on a scale and the intervals between the notes.
When we talk about chords in a song, you might automatically think about guitar or piano as instruments that people use to play chords by themselves. At the same time, instruments like bass, trumpet, and even vocals all normally play single notes. But if they play at the same time or in harmony, the mix of their sounds (or notes) will forms chords, too.
So what are chord progressions?
These are the changes between the different chords in a song, the length of time they are played, and how they repeat. Normally, chords are played in a key, which means a collection of notes that sound good together.
In the key of C major, when ascending, these notes are C D E F G A B C.
From the ‘Sound of Music’ theory, this is the same thing as Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do.
As you can see, those seven notes that form a scale come back to repeat on the eighth step. A different scale, like the key of G, for example, will have the notes G A B C D E F# G. But the steps are the same, and this is the basis of the Nashville Number System.
Nashville Number System Basics
The Nashville Number System was created in the 1950s and further expanded as a shorthand system in the 1980s. As you go up and down a scale, you go from step to step, just like in our diagram.
The NNS simply uses numbers to represent these steps, from 1 up to 7. Because the highest step would be the same root note as the first step, they don’t use a number 8 in the system.
It’s also important to know that in any major key, the chords have different qualities, either major, minor, or dimished. It goes:
1 (maj), 2 (min), 3 (min), 4 (maj), 5 (maj), 6 (min), and 7 (diminished).
“But,” you say, “why not just write the notes instead of the numbers?”
That’s an excellent point and one that makes complete sense. After all, if you’ve got to write out a song, why not just write out the chords that you use to play it and be done with it?
Well, that’s all fine and dandy if you want to play the same song the same way forever and ever. But most musicians are a lot more flexible than that. As long as they know the progression of a song, they can play it in any key because they know the intervals between the notes in the different scales.
In other words, if they had a song that went:
C F C G F A A C in the key of C major, they could instantly transpose (move up and down) to
G C G D C E E G in the key of G major. But all you have to write is
1 4 1 5 4 6 6 1 in the Nashville Number System.
This way, no matter what key you want to play a song in, you still know which chords to play from that key. In this example, you always play the chord on step 1, then on step 4, then step 1, then step 5, no matter what that chord is.
So why change keys?
Different keys tend to have a slightly different feeling to them. Some feel brighter and cheerier, and others more melancholy. In a studio session, a producer might ask for a band to try a song in a different key to see what effect it has on the overall quality of the song’s sound.
Another very important reason to change musical keys is to accommodate different singers who may have different vocal ranges. This will enable them to hit the highest or the lowest notes in a piece; the whole song may have to be changed to a lower or higher key.
So instead of re-writing a song multiple times, the NNS is a shorthand way to show the structure of a song regardless of which key it’s in. To make key changes easy, you can even pick up an Ivedeosongs NNS Chart for quick and easy chord transposition.
Special Symbols in the Nashville Number System
Now we can get more in-depth with the Nashville Number System for drummers explained. In the NNS, chords are written out in bars, so our earlier example could be written like:
1 4 | 1 5 | 4 6 | 6 1
If this is standard time (4/4), then we can see two chords played as half notes in each of the 4 bars.
However, if you wanted to show them repeated as quarter notes, you’d add dots like this:
1 . 4 . | 1 . 5 . | 4 . 6 . | 6 . 1 .
So we can see that the NNS shows the lengths of the chords as well.
Other timing symbols
These include putting a diamond around a number to show that it should be sustained for a full bar as a ringing whole note. A ^ symbol or a dot over a number indicates that it should be played shorter or even choked off. The symbols < and > can be used to indicate pushed and delayed notes.
To indicate different types of chords that differ from the standard chords in a key, these symbols are normally used:
♭ = flat (written before a number like ♭3)
♯ = sharp (written before a number like ♯5)
– = minor
7 = dominant 7th
Δ = major 7th
° = diminished
°7 = diminished 7th
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The Nashville Number System for Drummers Explained
Why should you know the NNS? It helps you understand the chords that the band will play through a song, plus their lengths. This gives you a sense of the rhythm and changes you need to know to shift gears or add in fills.
By learning to read this simple shorthand system, you can improve your understanding of music and motions of the songs you’ll be playing. That will help you become a better musician to play with and help to get you more work in the process.
Until next time, let your music play.