How to Learn Songs Efficiently like the Great Nashville Pros!
Growing up as a guitarist for hire, you don’t have a lot of room for mistakes. Your very livelihood depends on being able to show up and take care of whatever stylistic request your client has-sometimes at a moment’s notice. I’ve never forgotten the few times I may have felt I had a bad day where I thought I might have been taking too long to learn a client’s song and come up with a part. That fear of unpreparedness mixed with the need for survival pushed me to embrace the Nashville number system to categorize musical pieces and learn songs at a breakneck pace.
The Nashville number system helped me learn how to hear the pitch in a way that would let me identify keys quickly. It also allowed me to transpose music on the fly and become a more significant part of other artists’ writing processes in the studio. Embracing the Nashville number system took me from just being someone’s guitarist to becoming integral to their creative process. I think every guitarist would benefit from a little understanding of the Nashville system, so I’m going to walk you through how I would set up a song before a session.
So the first question I always ask before every gig I take is will the client be providing a form of music charts before the session. Don’t think this is a discriminating question or a dig at anyone’s skill level. Plenty of musicians can’t read music, let alone write out their charts; asking the question just helps set up what kind of gig is it and how prepared I need to be. If the client provides a fantastic chart, great! Learn the track and show up ready to shine. But more often than not, I have to cobble together a few parts on the fly and write out a measured chart to get through the performance.
When in doubt, always ask for a chart. In a worst-case scenario, all you can hear is, “I don’t have any.” I believe the music charts are for rehearsal. It’s more professional to not rely on charts at the gig. More importantly, it’s more rewarding to experience a musical moment to the fullest without staring at a piece of music!
The Art of Listening:
I like to listen to any song I’m given by a client, whether an iPhone recorded demo or professional recording, on repeat to absorb as much as I can from the music. My favorite way to do this is in the car driving around. I usually will listen several times to determine the length of verse, pre-chorus, and chorus and internalize when each section of music changes. I also try to get in the client’s head I’m listening to by following the story of lyrics and how the music’s ensuing music shapes the story. If you’re trying to learn a song you are interested might I suggest you try driving along while listening. You might find it’s helpful!
Sing-Along to the Song!:
Once I’ve made a mental map of the song after driving around, I like to sing my part along to the record. If I don’t have a recorded part to go by, and I’m left with my creativity to help fill in the gaps, I like to sing what I hear in my head over the track. It helps me start to make a mental map to translate what I hear in my mind to the guitar or help me hear where I fit amongst someone else’s music. I like to say out loud sections of songs as they go by. Hearing my voice helps me make a mental note of when changes start to happen in any music piece. My classical training dictates that if you can sing whatever you hear, you can play it. Whenever I get stuck trying to learn a piece of music, I always will sing back the phrase or line just to help me get through it. You have to know the song well enough to sing, so this is where the listening, as mentioned earlier, step comes into play.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, what if I suck at singing? I’m a guitarist. I never signed up to be a singer! You are right, but our voice is the first instrument we are born with, and part of learning songs quickly is identifying the notes, or intervals, in a phrase of a song, and be able to play them before you pick up the instrument. Before you freak out at how hard this sounds, anyone can be trained to do this. You just need to work on your ear training!
Ear training works by repetitively and consciously training your ear to hear the difference in intervals within a scale. Before you worry that this is some impossible Jedi-like task, remember there are only seven notes, eight if you include the octave, in the Western musical scale. A great way to practice is to play in the key of C major on your guitar. Start on C, the starting note in the C major scale, then play a different note. Was it higher or lower in pitch? Fine-tune your listening to hear how far away the note is from your starting pitch if the note is higher, and how far below the note is from you if the note is lower. Basic pitch drills like these are the genesis of training your ear.
Learning the musical intervals between notes is the secret to learning entire music sets to memory in just days. Any song becomes easily learnable when you use your intervals! In Nashville, artists use a number interval assigned to each note in a scale. Instead of worrying about which actual note names go in which order in a song, the Nashville number system applies numbers of one through seven to each interval in the seven-note major or minor scale.
Nashville session players listen to the relationship of each note’s changes, or chord change, to identify markers in a song. Nashville, Tennessee, grew up as a recording session town with tons of session musicians who made their living playing on songs aiming to have the next hit. When you’re playing on songs that are just in the moment of being born, it’s easy for singers to have to adjust to a more suitable key to sing them correctly.
For example, when I’ve worked with female vocalists in the studio, a typical musical key is F major’s key. In the Nashville System, you always assign the key as your first note or the one. In this case, the note F would be considered the one. From there, I write out all my sequential notes up the F major scale until I reach the second octave-with each new pitch becoming two, three, four, etc. In this case, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F is the musical Nashville Number System equivalent of 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,1 (correctly notated in Roman Numerals I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii, I). I love the Nashville System because it gets you thinking about intervals being numbers tangibly. Once you have assigned all your intervals to the Nashville System, I adjust my notes to reflect the key signature. In this case, change your scale to reflect that the F major’s key has B flat as it’s the only flat note notated in the Circle of Fifths. Your final chordal Nashville Number System for the key of F major is now F, gm, am, B flat, C, dm, e*, F or I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii*, I. All the lower case Nashville Number formula represent minor chords, the capital numerals represent major chords. The * symbol represents the diminished chord that occurs at the major seventh interval before the octave.
Practice the Nashville Numbers in Writing!:
For me, the only way any of these stick in my head is if I write it down while I’m going through the Nashville Number system for the song I’m learning. Discovering the song’s key is the key to unlocking the Nashville formula and the key to helping you unlock how you can fit your musical voice over the music. I start with a blank sheet of paper and write out my Nashville Numbers formula (I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii*, I) at the top of the page. From there, I usually will listen to the song a few more times to search for what note sounds most like the tonal center, all the while experimenting with different pitches trying to see what lines up.
When I land on a pitch that sounds like it resonates with the song, I intently listen to see if it sounds like the home base for all the notes in the piece or decide if the pitch exists in the key. Usually, home base notes, or the one, have a very dominating sound over all the other pitches in a song, as if they fit under the home base’s note umbrella. Once I hear that happening with the piece, I begin to write out my Nashville formula. I start with my one, write my pitches in sequential note order, and apply my key signature to the pitches to get my final key. I find that the final act of writing the song out helps it sear to my memory. At this point, if there’s anything odd happening in the music, as in time signature changes or notes outside your established key signature, this is where I document that to paper.
Like many things, understanding the Nashville Number System takes a little practice. I recommend sitting down with a notepad, your Circle of Fifths, and start writing notes to the Nashville formula first. Write as many as you can over and over. Go through the sequence in your mind as you write. A more straightforward in-between step for beginners is working on applying the Nashville Numbers to a chord progression you already know. It’s a great way to start seeing the structural relationships between chords, and soon you’ll stop saying it’s a song with C, F, and G in it a lot, to saying it’s a I, IV, V in the key of C.