Nashville number system and music theory

A group owner wrote a few days ago about his search for a pianist:

We are now auditioning piano players, and have heard some really great talent. More and more I am finding young people using the Nashville number system, and that fits quite nicely with my mode of operation.

This is good news as a report from the field, but I guess I thought (naively?) that it has always been standard issue for sg pianists who had any serious ambition to know the NNS. Even coming up in the small-time world 15 years ago and with a decade of considerable informal and some formal training already behind me, I had to learn it as a matter of course and plenty of music theory to boot. Was my case an anomaly?

Now that I think about it, perhaps so. After all, southern gospel is famous for how ignorant its musicians and vocalists can be of music theory and how little ability they can have to think abstractly about music and still succeed. Indeed, if you want to look for one of the many roots to the deep-seated problem of gospel music’s crisis of quality, the glut of untrained musicians (vocal and instrumental) is prime ground to till. Native or natural ability is all well and good. And a lot of players (and singers for that matter), of course, wear their lack of training as a badge of honor. In a culture skeptical of the worldliness with which formal training is often associated in southern gospel (long-haried or sissified music etc), celebrating one’s uncultivated talent can be a real crowd pleaser. It makes players feel exceptional rather than willfully ignorant, and it reinforces certain anti-intellectual predispositions among salt-of-the-earth fans.

But the widespread rhetoric of “God-given” talent and talk of divinely inspired ability or spirit-filled playing tends to exacerbate the problem of players who don’t understand the musical foundations of what they do and - worse still - to excuse this ignorance, allowing it to go unremediated, sometimes for entire careers.

Why does this matter? Because practically speaking, it limits a group’s expressive range. Even if a group is lucky (or smart) enough to have a vocalist who can also arrange and/or write music, it takes a live instrumentalist (usually a pianist) to transplant the arranger’s work into capital the group can spend on stage. Untrained players who don’t know or won’t learn how to build proper fills and to consistently construct harmonically complementary accompaniments means a group that can never really perform truly live sets.

Tracks, of course, are both a response to and a cause of this phenomenon. Thus the traveling hordes of sg groups that are functionally illiterate of music theory in all but its crudest and most dumbed down forms (your part is the high one you end after me make it sound real purtty and speerchul in this section). These groups are the norm: sing by numbers with band tracks that, if they require a pianist all, make the live accompanist’s job one of figuring out how to stand out from the track.

The typical account of how we got to this current state of affairs goes something like this: First they came for the drummers and the bass players and the lead guitarists and harmonica players (though I shed no tears for a single one of them … a pox on the harmonica!), and now it’s the pianists. Once the instrumental core of gospel music, the southern gospel pianist is now an endangered species, made irrelevant by tracks.

There is a certain amount of truth to this, but only some. Few people (especially the critics of tracks and mourners for the death of the band in gospel music) can recognize or will admit that pianists have relinquished a great deal of their authority and relevance to tracks. In the age of canned bands and orchestras, you can count yourself a bonafide southern gospel player if you can pick up a few licks here and there and content yourself with keeping time and smiling happily (or furrowing your brow reverentially) the rest of the time. This is why you hear so many players who “fill by number” – that is, do little more than play chords and keep basic rhythm with the track, waiting for the gaps in the singing to insert flashy, frilly phrases.

Another way to say this: part of the reason why it’s so deeply pleasing to hear a Justin Ellis or Stan Whitmire doing acoustical work is because it’s so rare. Probabilistically, my group owner friend whose email I led off with will likely end up hiring a guy (and he is almost always a guy these days) who for all his ability to arpegiate his way through a solo and dash off a few polished licks here and there, will for the most part lay down uninspired accompaniment and be virtually incapable of deviating from the (literally) preprogrammed set, unless it’s to sleep-walk his way through some tired old standard like “Beulah Land” or just sit silently by for an cappella hymn singing (cue happy smile or furrowed brow). Sigh. There’ll be no interludes (of the sort the Crabbs created so often) and no spontaneous reaction to a particular audience’s response to your set.

Sadly, of course, this is no obstacle to a career in southern gospel. By planting their butts in the seats of countless subpar or just-serviceable concerts and by buying and buying unnumbered pieces of crummy product, southern gospel audiences and consumers have practically decided that a southern gospel performer need only know how to create a reasonable approximation of a certain loosely defined musical style – without troubling himself with the structuring ideas and foundational concepts essential to the creation of that sound.

Update: A commenter writes:

Whether or not a pianist has learned the Nashville number system specifically has no reflection whatsoever on whether or not they know music theory.

This is a useful distinction that I think on rereading my post I didn’t make clear enough. I was mostly riffing off and thinking from my own experience here, which can be dangerous. In my case, I learned theory alongside NNS, on the premise that (as this same commenter notes) being able to read chart is useless without the ability to creatively interpret and apply what you see. That said, for pianists who have learned to play “by ear” and are largely lacking any formal theoretical training to understand what lays behind their improvisations, learning NNS has the potential to cultivate a more sophisticated comprehension and deeper appreciation of harmonic and chordal relationships, in turn helping pianists to figure out how to be smarter and more inventive players (i.e. using subtler passing tones). And it is this kind of connection between NNS and music theory that I had in mine when writing the post.

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  1. Gerry wrote:

    Avery, if you’re so talented, why don’t you go play in a group? If you were that great, you would still be playing, n’est-ce pas?

    You mock the “God-given” talents (your quotation marks, not mine) of those who have more talent than you could ever hope to have. If the talent isn’t from God, which I assume is your point from your quotation marks, then who is it from? This is off-topic, but sometimes I wonder where you are coming from spiritually.

    If a pianist has an excellent ear (which truly is a rarity these days), training will not make much of a difference one way or another. Your idea of talent is if someone can play more than a couple of arpeggios - or would that be arpeggii? ;) Seriously, a good ear is more important than anything - for a musician. The Crabb Family and Kingsmen pianists are two of the best that I can think of to demonstrate this. Let’s face it, doesn’t everyone know somebody who has taken music lessons for years and years, but couldn’t transpose a song or initiate a key change to save their lives???

    Please note, I am not referring to vocalists; they definitely should have training to improve AND protect their voices.

  2. RF wrote:

    This is a great editorial–something I’ve been thinking about for some time, but it begs the question: How many current sg pianists are classically trained? I’m relatively sure Anthony Burger was, but after that, i have no idea.

    And total agreement about Stan Whitmire. He’s simply the best right now!

  3. Dean Adkins wrote:

    “There’ll be no interludes (of the sort the Crabbs created so often)…”

    Geez, I thought I could read a post without the a ubiquitous Crabb reference….silly me!!!

  4. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Whether or not a pianist has learned the Nashville number system specifically has no reflection whatsoever on whether or not they know music theory.

    When I was a college undergraduate, I learned about chords in the classical manner…using Roman and Arabic numeral combinations for shorthand. This continued as I went on to do my graduate work on a music theory major.

    Along the way, I made a point to study and come to a working understanding of the more commonly used pop chord symbols on my own. I’ve yet to run across a fake-book marketed to the general public that used Roman numerals or the Nashville number system. There may be some out there, but the vast majority use pop chords.

    Like pop chord symbols, the Nashville number system is merely another form of shorthand for writing chords without having to spell out every single pitch and rhythm. To say a pianist is “ignorant” of music theory simply because they don’t use the Nashville number system could be compared to saying a linguist is “ignorant” of the English language if they don’t know how to speak with a British accent.

    The criteria for choosing a pianist should be whether or not they know and understand how chords work together. Being able to play off of a chart is fine and dandy, but if they can’t commit the song to memory and then do something original within the structure they’ve been hired to play…be it playing along with tracks or with other live musicians…then you’ve just hired a robot who is reacting to a set of instructions, not a true musical artist.

  5. Daniel Britt wrote:

    I have heard about (an undoubtedly even played) the Nashville Numbering System in that “One = the signature chord, etc.”

    Like David, I have commonly used the NNS by charting Roman numerals (I=one, IV=four, V=five, etc…)

    So, is the main difference with the Nashville system found in the actual use of “modern” numerals (1, 4, 5,) instead of the Roman numerals (I, IV, V)?

  6. Dean Adkins wrote:

    “Probabilistically, my group owner friend whose email I led off with will likely end up hiring a guy (and he is almost always a guy these days) who for all his ability to arpegiate his way through a solo and dash off a few polished licks here and there, will for the most part lay down uninspired accompaniment and be virtually incapable of deviating from the (literally) preprogrammed set, unless it’s to sleep-walk his way through some tired old standard like “Beulah Land” or just sit silently by for an cappella hymn singing (cue happy smile or furrowed brow).”

    Since I know the “group owner” and his penchant for musical quality, one can rest assured that the pianist he hires will do more than “lay down uninspired accompaniment.”

  7. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Here’s a link to a rough explanation of the Nashville Number System.

    NNS is essentially a merging of the Roman numeral system and standard pop chords. You get the flexibility of Roman numerals by not being limited to any certain key, but you get the familiarity of pop symbols for chord “flavors” to a point. After that point, NNS sometimes deviates from standard pop chord symbols, though I’m hard pressed to see why. For example, an X is sometimes used to indicate a seventh rather than a numeral 7. I have no idea why.

    In other ways, NNS is simpler. A second inversion tonic chord (C with a G in the bass in the key of C), for example, is called 1/5 in NNS. To me, this simplicity should be the goal of all musical shorthand. I can’t type precisely how you’d have written that in college due to the inability to superscript or subscript in this forum, but I can explain. You’d have a 6 superscript and a 4 subscript just to the right of a Roman numeral I.

    Not being limited to one key is essential for session players who may need to change keys after an arrangement has been written. NNS saves having to re-write the arrangement in a new key when the producer decides to transpose an augmented fourth away from where you originally conceived the key.

    I generally play along with tracks, so I’ve developed my own hybrid shorthand that I use when writing out charts. Once I have the track in hand, I know the key isn’t going to be changed at that point. I may as well go ahead and put a C on my chart every time I hear a C chord. I essentially use a combination of pop chord symbols with bar lines to indicate the number of chords per bar. I’ve never understood why someone would want to use parentheses to indicate bars, when bar lines work just as well.

    If the same chord is used for multiple bars…say 4…I’ll write the chord and then put X4. Those Xs on my charts would confuse a NNS, but they make good sense to me.

    For the live performer, knowing NNS is another good tool to have in the arsenal, but if the group has a fairly set in stone program of songs that is going to be committed to memory by the player, it’s not necessarily a requirement. It’s really a question of how creative a player can be over top of a track in a live setting, not what particular method they used to commit the song to memory in the first place. If you’re playing many different songs for artists on the Gaither tour, then you’d better know NNS. If you’re accompanying the Hoppers, you may need an understanding of NNS in order to commit the songs to memory initially, assuming they provide you with NNS charts. If you’re simply given a track and told to learn the song, then you don’t have to use NNS per se when writing out your own chart.

    I have a feeling many never write out a chart at all…simply learning the chords by playing the track and picking up the progressions by ear. I suspect some are quick studies using this method. There’s nothing wrong with that either as long as they do something creative with it after the fact.

    I think Doug’s complaint is that often players settle for chording along with the track and playing simple fills rather than making their performance unique and interesting for a discerning listener and for themselves as artists.

    And I agree with him on that point.

  8. Videoguy wrote:

    Being a keyboard player, the added benefit of the NNS not yet mentioned is the ability to signal chord changes to a bass or guitar player in a live situation, as a catcher would signal to the pitcher. This has come in handy when someone in the congregation hollers: “Can ya’ll sing _____?”, or any other time a musician may not be completely familiar with the material.

    Just FYI, to signal the VI chord, I hold up a thumb and index finger. The VII is the thumb, index, and middle finger. Sharps and flats? Well, hopefully it’s a slow song, and there’s time for them lip-read “sharp” or “flat”.

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