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Alternate Chord Notations

There are a couple of other variations in chart writing worth mentioning, simply because as a performer, you might see them.

Nashville Notation

As I stated in the main text, the method I use is quite similar to what is called Nashville Notation. Nashville notation was first developed in the 1950s by Neal Matthews, Jr. to use in the studio and later extended by Charlie McCoy. Although it still reflects its origins in Country and Western music (hence, the name), it has come to be adopted by musicians, particularly studio musicians, in most areas of popular music.

1 Some folks present jazz notation as an essential part of Nashville notation, although this has not been my observation in practice. Still, you should be familiar enough with jazz notation (below) to recognize it and be able to read it fluently.

Similar to what I have been doing all along, chords are identified by their position in the chord scale. The root is 1; the subdominant is 4, etc. In addition, as I have been doing without explicitly stating it, all numbers represent major chords unless modified (with the usual modifiers for minor, diminished, etc.). Chord extensions are also indicated the same way (e.g. X7, Y13, etc.). The variations on these modifiers, discussed below in "Jazz charts," can be, and frequently are, added in the same way.1


There are a couple of differences. Nashville notation does not indicate minor keys as a category. For example, "The house of the Rising sun," for which an on-line chart might give the opening lines as:

                      Am   C        D           F
                There is a house in New Orleans
                     Am       C      E
                They call the Rising Sun

The theory approach (used on these pages) would analyze this in this manner:

                      1m   3        4(maj)      6
                There is a house in New Orleans
                     1m       3      5(maj)
                They call the Rising Sun

Nashville notation would read:

                      6m   1        2           4
                There is a house in New Orleans
                     6m       1      3
                They call the Rising Sun

2 "O come Emmanuel," for example, has the verses in the minor key, and the refrain in he major. In order to keep from constantly indicating key changes, the minor key verses are just written in terms of their relationship to the major.

Doing things this way allows the musician to bypass issues of key ("Rising sun" is not in C major, even though Nashville notation might be read to imply that), and simply play. Since actual key may change several times in a given piece, temporary key shifts are simply ignored as irrelevant to the player.2 Major key shifts are likely to be indicated (e.g. when a song moves up step, and stays there).


Regular symbols from standard music notation might be imported into such a score (time signatures, repeats, retards, sometimes note shapes to show more complex timing, etc., etc.), However, there are some shorthands for playing-style worth mentioning.

All chords are assumed to cover one measure unless otherwise indicated. Multi-measure chords simply appear repeatedly (if there are lyrics, then over the words they go with). A differently sized measure might be marked similarly with a box around the chord and the appropriate number slashes over the chord within it. A ³ measure within a ⁴ song would, for example, be written as .

If there are two chords representing two beats each in a ⁴ song, they are underlined together (4 5 1 = two beats each of 4 & 5 followed by a full measure of 1). An unevenly split measure will have something resembling slash notation over the affected chords (little lines over a set of underlined chords. For example, would indicate a rhythm of    using the indicated chords). Other than the next example, anything sub-quarter note is probably going to require note-heads.

Angle-brackets (<, >) are indications for the player to "push" the chord. It tells her to play it starting half a beat earlier than would otherwise be indicated. Unfortunately, both specify early entry; the forward bracket does not indicate a half-beat late, which would have been useful.

A diamond shape (◊) above or around a chord indicates that it is strummed or played once and held for the measure (instead of the regular rhythmic pattern). Marcato (^) or a filled in triangle () above function the same as a staccato (dot below)—the chord is to be played then stopped.

Bass notes

3 Slashes are sometimes used to indicate multiple add-notes. C6/9, for example, would mean a C triad with both a 6 (a) and a 9 (d) added. This would obviously throw a huge monkey-wrench into Nashville notation since you would never know whether the number after the slash was an addition chord note or the bass. For this reason, I prefer parentheses—6(9), as in the jazz chart list. It can be used with either with Nashville notation numbers or standard letters.
Bass notes are written with slash notation. 4/6 means the subdominant (chord) with the submediant (note) in the bass. Note that this is much like the more commonly see charts where (in the key of C) that might be written F/A. Inversions are written the same way as any other note in the bass (this would be F in first inversion). F/C♭ (in C) would be 4/♭5.3

Accidentals with Nashville notation chords

You probably noticed that I said C♭ in the previous sentence, with the ♭ after the chord letter, but ♭5 with the ♭ before the chord number. That was not a mistake. Live with it. It is also how you would say it: cee flat, but flat five.

Accidentals with Nashville notation chords

By way of summary, let's look at a little piece we've seen before and compare the different styles of chord representation.

Three numeric notation styles Numeric notation styles
If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI
4 The reason I use lower case for bass notes is to remove the ambiguity between these and polychords. Polychords are simultaneous sounding of different chords (usually in different instruments), and the standard notation for that is X/Y, with both chords in upper case. I do not expect that my style will ever catch on, but I am going to stick with it. It certainly presents no reader difficulty—I have never had anyone ask, "What does that mean?"

As we saw before, the line on top is similar to what you would get in most on-line charts. The only difference being that most such charts don't use lower case for the bass in slashed chords.4

The first line below the score is the way I have been handling it here, and the second line below, the new one, is Nashville Notation. The obvious difference are: a) I analyze minor keys as minor keys rather than as major key that center around the sixth scale step, and b) the bass in a slashed chord represents is function within the chord while in Nashville notation it represents it's place in the scale. In both cases, my choices are based on the fact that this is a study in music theory, and Nashville notation's are based on ease of performance. This is particularly true of the bass notes. The bass player does not want to have to analyze each chord theoretically to figure out what to play-he just wants the note, thank you very much.

The third line is how a theory text would represent it, which I have already discussed in the section on Chords.

Of course, you recognize the TAB.

By the way, this piece never resolves. How does it end, you ask? In Nashville notation that would be " 7 3/♯5  6m". You figure it out.

If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI


Jazz charts

In chart traditions that go back to writing them out by had there developed a few shortcuts that you still see occasionally these days, simply because of the force of tradition. The following is a short excerpt from an article by Steve Rochinski, who teaches a Berklee School of Music.

5 See under Melody (note) for a discussion of the title you didn't expect.
Patty and Mildred J. Hill , "Good Morning to All"5 from "Understanding reharmonization" by Steve Rochinski Jazz chart
If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

It has both a familiar look and some things that might look strange.










6 By "V" here I mean the note a third below X.

Symbol Meaning
X- He doesn't ever say Xm, instead he uses the convention of inserting a dash wherever a 'm' might appear in the charts you are more used to seeing. There is a certain logic if you think of the minor as a chord with a flattened third. Alternatively, since this approach reflects handwritten chart tradition, so it could have its origins in writing the 'm' so quickly that it sort of merged into a dash, which eventually itself became standard.
Xma Where I would write out, he simply gives you the first two letters. After all, if 'm' is '-,' you are not going to get confused.
XM or X∆ or Xj Alternate symbols for X. I personally prefer the Delta (X∆).
X♯5 Think about this for a minute. If you take a major chord and sharpen the 5, what do you get? An augmented chord. If it is a augmented 7 the 5 comes second: X7♯5
X-7(♭5) In the same vein, a minor 7 with a flat 5 is what someone else would call a 7. Notice that the third chord on the next line uses a standard 7 in the next line. Regular diminished chords (without the 7) would be simply .
X7 Considering the previous entry, this must refer to a doubly diminished 7.
X6(9) E.g. an X6 with a 9 added. This could be written a V-11/x,6 of course.

On beyond Zebra

If you came here after finishing the page on Expanded Chords, it is time to move on to melodic movement. Other wise just head back where you came from and continue from there.

© 2015 Alan Humm