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Nashville’s Number System and Music Theory

Will Griffin

Purpose:    To give the student a basic understanding of the diatonic scales in each major key and to learn to associate each note with a number for that key.
Objectives:  Upon completion of this lesson, the student will:
    A:    Know that a diatonic scale is comprised of an eight (8) note octave which goes from "Do" to "Do";
    B:     Using a piano keyboard recognize and know that in every scale, for every major key, there is a 1/2 step between notes 3 & 4 and notes 7 & 8 ;
    C:    Know that the Key of C has no sharps or flats;.
    D:   Know that the Key of G has one # (F#), the Key of D has 2#s (F# & C#), the Key of A has 3#s (F#, C# and G#) and the Key of E has 4#s (F#, C#, G# and D#)
    E:    Know that in every Key, there are Major and minor scales, depending upon which note you start with and in what Key is the Major Ionian Scale.
    F:    Know that a Major scale has a natural 3rd with a 1/2 step between note 3 & 4, and a minor scale has a flatted 3rd. note.
    G:    Know that  Major chord is notes 1-3-5 and a minor chord is notes 1-b3-5.
    H:    Understand that various chords are created by the notes (numbers) used to make that particular chord.
Procedure:  Read the following carefully and use the keyboard examples to see the various major and minor scales in the Key of C.

Scales and Keys

    As we saw in the intro to the Nashville Number Code a diatonic scale, is basically Do-Re-Mi, etc. 8-note octave, with a 1/2 step between notes 3 & 4 and notes 7 & 8.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8(1)
Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do

    Let's look at this on a piano.  Even if you play the guitar, or any other instrument, the same principles apply.

    We're going to use the key of C major as our first example, because it has no sharps or flats (black keys) in it.

    You will notice between E and F (notes 3 & 4) and B and C (notes 7 & 8) there are no black keys.  This is because in a diatonic scale (all diatonic scales in all keys), there is a natural half step between 3 & 4 and 7 & 8 (or 1, coming back to "Do", one 'octave' higher)

    Key means scale.  The key the song is in is whatever "Do" is. If you are using a C major scale, then you are in the key of C major, certainly when the "C" note is "Do".

    If you are in the key of D then you are using a D major scale, certainly when you put a 1/2 step between notes 3 & 4 and 1/2 step between notes 7 & 8.  Same is true if you start with E or any other.

     The seven letter names C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C give you a natural C major scale or a 1-scale, also known as an ionian scale.  C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C is 12345678 with half steps from E to F and B to C. 

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8(1)
Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do
C D E F G A B C
D E F# G A B C# D

    This is why we use a number of sharps or flats at the beginning of a piece of sheet music (stave notation - lines & spaces) to signify the key. We need them to build a major scale on the desired note. Without them the half steps fall in the wrong place and the music sounds foreign. 

    The "Major Keys, where the note is the 1 note: are as follows and they are in the order for the number of # (sharps) in them:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8(1)
Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do
C D E F G A B C
G A B C D E F# G
D E F# G A B C# D
A B C# D E F# G# A
E F# G# A B C# D# E

    If you played D to D on the piano (without any black keys and played an "F" note instead of an "F#") you will find you it to sound minor, because it would be a minor scale or D-minor (Dm) or 2m in the Key of C.  If you were in the Key of C and played starting with D (and not using black keys) you would hit and F, instead of an F#, thus the 3rd. note would be flatted and a flatted 3rd note. is what makes a minor key or chord. 

    The same would be true, if you started on any other note or "scale" in the key of "C" and didn't put in any #s, because the key of "C" doesn't have any #s or bs.  We'll get into this further, just as soon as you learn more about the scales and go over what you are reading on your piano, guitar, bass, or whatever instrument you play.

    You can see that if we are in the key of "D" and "D" is "Do, we needed to sharp the 3rd. note and the 7th, or we would not be in the key of "C", but rather playing a D Major scale, because we would use the F# to make the 1/2 step between notes 3 & 4.

    Each scale (and we will use the key of C again) has a name if you played the scale starting on a different note and you don't use any sharps or flats (black keys).

C   1 (I) Major Ionian Scale
D 2 (ii) minor Dorian Scale
E 3 (iii) minor Phrygian Scale
F 4 (IV) Major Lydian Scale
G 5 (V) Major Mixalydian Scale
A 6 (vi) minor Aeolian Scale
B 7 (vii) Locrian Scale
C   1 (I) Major Ionian Scale

    You will notice that some scales are Major (I - IV - V) and some are minor (ii - iii - vi).  It is because these chords are minor chords, because as we use the key of C as our example, there would be no sharps and flats (black keys). 

    We will get into this and chords to use in a song later to further explain why these notes/chords numbers are the majors and minors (no matter what key the song is in)  Remember these are not keys, these are scales in the Key of C.  The key a song is in is whatever "Do" or 1 ( I ) is.

    The same is true per whole steps between notes (except 3 & 4) and (7 & 8) for the "flat" keys:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8(1)
F G A Bb C D E F
Bb C D Eb F G A Bb
Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb
Ab Bb C Db Eb F G Ab

    Because there are 12 total piano keys on the piano between C and the next C up to the "octave, there are twelve keys, each with its own relative diatonic scale.

    Sometimes you might use notes or chords that are not found in the key. If, for example, you had a Bb in the key of C, it would be a b7 (or flatted 7th.).  You'll see what we mean, when we start talking chords and the notes that make the chords.  In the case of a C7 it would be notes 1- 3 - 5 - b7 (or C-E-G-Bb).   A Cm7 (minor 7th) would be 1 - b3 - 5 - b7 (or C-Eb-G-Bb)  Again more of this later.

    If you had a G# in the key of C, it would be a #5. The b3rd. (flat 3rd) in the key of G would be Bb. The b2 in the key of D would be Eb.  A flatted 3rd. note is what you use, when you wish to create a minor scale.  Which is why if you are in the key of C (no black keys) and start on a D the 3rd. F# will be an F or b3rd.  Here again we'll go over this and it will be easy to see, when we start talking about chords, what notes make up what kind of chord and what chords you play to play the song.

    A good strategy to develop an ear for the system is to convert simple melodies to numbers. "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" would be: 1-1-5-5-6-6-5-4-4-3-3-2-2-1.

    Try doing this with " Happy Birthday." I’ll give you a hint…1 is usually the last note of the song, (look at "Twinkle, Twinkle….") several simple songs would prepare you for the next part in this series, Chords.

    If you feel lost, sing "Twinkle, Twinkle…" with numbers, then sing the do re mi’s with numbers, over and over until you can do them quickly, and suddenly you’ll get it. Don’t give up.


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