Changing the key signature of a song used to be difficult for me. That was until my dad taught me to transpose using a system that made it so simple.

At the time, we didn’t really know the official name for it, so we just said that we were learning to “play by number.” I now know that it’s called the Nashville Numbering System (NNS).

The NNS is a system that numbers the chords in a way that they can be used in any key. The best way to explain it is by showing you how it works. Let’s use the Christmas carol, O Come All Ye Faithful, since it’s a popular song to many.

1. Identify the chord numbers.

 

Place a number next to each chord. This little chart comes in handy for this. The numbers stand for which scale degree each chord finds it root.

 

transpose

 

 

 

 

 

 

Example 1

 

Verse
G (1)                   D (5)
O come, all ye faithful
G (1)                     D (5)
Joyful and triumphant
Em (6m)            D (5)            A (2)          D (5)
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem
G (1)
Come and behold Him
Am (2m)                        D (5)
Born the King of Angels!

 

Chorus
      G (1)

O come, let us adore Him
G (1)            D (5)
O come, let us adore Him
C (4)                  D (5)
O come, let us adore Him
G (1)           D (5)    G (1)
Christ             the Lord


2. Find any borrowed chords.

 

Notice that there is one chord that doesn’t fit in the NNS. It’s the A chord (highlighted), which is a borrowed chord from the key of D. It is the 5 chord in D and technically speaking it is the 5 of 5 in the key of G.

 

Example 2

 

Verse
G (1)                   D (5)
O come, all ye faithful
G (1)                     D (5)
Joyful and triumphant
Em (6m)            D (5)            A (2)          D (5)
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem

 

3. Transpose the chords to a new key.

 

Let’s transpose it to the key of E. The E scale is as follows: E (1), F# (2), G# (3), A (4), B (5), C# (6), D# (7). Use the chord numbers in the song to determine which degree of the scale correlates with each chord.

 

Example 3

 

Verse
(1)                   (5)
O come, all ye faithful
(1)                     (5)
Joyful and triumphant
(6m)              (5)          (2)          (5)
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem
(1)
Come and behold Him
(2m)                        (5)
Born the King of Angels!

 

Chorus
     (1)
O come, let us adore Him
(1)              (5)
O come, let us adore Him
(4)                   (5)
O come, let us adore Him
(1)                (5)    (1)
Christ             the Lord

 

Example 4

 

Verse
E (1)                B(5)
O come, all ye faithful

E (1)               B (5)
Joyful and triumphant
C#m (6m)        B( 5)          F# (2)       B (5)
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem
E (1)
Come and behold Him
F#m  (2m)            B (5)
Born the King of Angels!

 

Chorus
     E (1)
O come, let us adore Him
E (1)             B (5)
O come, let us adore Him
A (4)                  B (5)
O come, let us adore Him
E (1)                B (5)    E (1)
Christ             the Lord

 

Make sense? Now practice doing it by picking a few different keys. It’s that easy!

 

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