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#ThursdayWorshipThoughts 03.01.18

Music By the Numbers


When I was a kid, I was amazed by my dad’s driving skills. I was old enough to understand the basic idea of how to get from point A to point B. No problem. But somehow he always knew a faster way to get there! It was like he was some kind of car ninja -or perhaps a road wizard who understood the mystic arts of cartography at a level that mere mortals could never attain.

How was he doing that?! Did he possess some sort of sixth sense? What was the secret to his navigational success?!

It wasn’t until I was much older that I witnessed this same level of superior knowledge being utilized not for travel, but for music.

I was 25 years old when I first recorded in a professional studio in Nashville, TN. This was a studio where many of my musical heroes have recorded throughout the years. I was working with a professional, seasoned Producer, and he decided to bring in a few of his buddies to record different parts for the project.

I was absolutely in awe!

I had previously been used to meticulously writing out song sheets for each of my songs. Those song sheets were essential for communicating how the song should be played. I awkwardly offered my song sheets to these masters of their trade (who had just finished up a nationwide tour with one of the biggest artists in Christian Music).

“Um, no thanks!”

They were very polite in refusing my song sheet, but I was perplexed. How were they going to know what to play!?

The Producer played back the recording of the song that we were working on, and the guitar guru grabbed a pen and a blank piece of paper. In real-time, as the song played, he started jotting down numbers. One, one, four, five. Then he went to the next line. One, one, four, five. And then to the next line. Six (with an “m” beside it), six (with an “m” beside it), four, five. Then he went to another line and simply wrote a one.

He continued in this way as the song was playing. He just listened in real time and wrote seemingly random numbers on the paper. After the song played through once, he said, “Let’s do it.”

He placed the paper with the jumbled mess of numbers on a music stand, picked up his guitar, and flawlessly played my song as if he had been playing it all of his life!

What is this dark magic?! How did he do this? How did he access this incredible shortcut?

Simple. He was using what is commonly referred to as the “Nashville Numbers System”. This systematic approach to playing music applies universal principles of contemporary western music and translates them into simple ways of quickly and effectively communicating them to the whole team of musicians. All of the important information, such as beats, chords, and progressions (and more) can be easily transferred (and transposed, as needed) by applying a basic understanding of Music Theory.

For the next several weeks, I will be unpacking a basic understanding of Music Theory for the purpose of helping worship teams practically apply that information in the form of the Nashville Numbers System. Then we can all be musical ninjas, wizards, and gurus as we work together to lead God’s people in musical worship.

* This #ThursdayWorshipThought article is part 1 (of 5) of a larger series, “Music Theory March”. Be sure to check out the other articles in the series, as well! For a printable version of this article, click here.

Artwork provided by my good friend, Brooke Gehman, an authentic and wonderful man of God, devoted follower of Christ, and an amazing husband and father. Brooke is a gifted Worship Leader, an incredible artist, and a Potter by trade (check out his website).

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