Songwriting isn’t about theory. Many professional songwriters don’t even read music. I’m one of them. We often don’t know the names of the chords we’re playing on guitar or piano.
What many of us do know, however, are numbers. Numbers are based on the shape or position you’re in rather than the key. They give you and easy way to communicate when collaborating.
What do I mean by “numbers”? I mean 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. That’s it. Think: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti (and do is back to 1). For a basic song, you only need 1, 4, 5, and 6.
Let’s pretend you’re in a cowriting session and your cowriter is playing in the key of G on guitar. Here’s what the numbers would be:
G – 1
C – 4
D – 5
Em – 6
If you were in the key of D, it would look like this:
D – 1
G – 4
A – 5
Bm – 6
Why use numbers instead of the chord name? Well, you might be using C, F, and G shapes on the guitar. But you have a capo on, so you’re actually in the key of Eb. Do you really want to transpose G to Eb to your piano player or electric guitarist? My brain hurts just thinking about it.
Memorize your numbers instead of actual theory. It saves time and mental energy and you’ll avoid confusion.
Here’s a quick guide:
KEY OF C
1 – C major: the root chord (this will be the key you’re in)
2 – D minor: a less commonly used minor chord in progressions
3 – E minor: another less commonly used minor chord in progressions
4 – F major: commonly used in progressions
5 – G major: commonly used in progressions
6 – A minor: the most common minor chord used in progressions
7 – B major: a chord you’ll rarely use; usually as a transition chord
A simple chord chart, then, would look like this:
1 – 4 – 1 – 4 (repeat 4x)
1 – 4 – 6 – 5 (repeat 4x)
6 – 5 – 6 – 5 (repeat 2x)