Major System Basics
M emorizing numbers is a difficult task without a proper technique. Their abstract nature demands a more suitable solution in form of images to make them more memorable. The most popular of these number systems is also the oldest: the so-called Major System uses a phonetic coding for consonants, from which words are then formed with the remaining vowels. The French mathematician and astronomer Pierre Hérigone developed it in the 17th century. It was brought into its present form by his countryman Aimé Paris in the 19th century. Since the beginning of memory sports in 1991 and the age of the internet it is quickly spreading around the world.
The coding is easy to learn thanks to mnemonic associations and offers a lot of possibilities to find suitable images. This easy access and the fact that this system is usable in most Western languages and even beyond makes the Major System the first choice for everyone who wants to memorize numbers. But it is much more than that: It is a proper memory system to store any kind of information and rivals the Method of Loci itself.
The Major Code
As already mentioned, the Major System is a phonetic system, in other words a sound system. This means that we assign similar consonants to the same numbers. Vowels, on the other hand, remain free and are not part of the encoding. It allows us to use many different words for the same numbers. This increases the possibility of individualization enormously. Everyone is different, with different interests, abilities, and especially knowledge. The latter is essential, since for some an Okapi is a wonderful animal and an excellent picture, while others have never heard of it and can therefore imagine it only with much more difficulty. Hence they would probably prefer to use a cap or a cube for the same number. This variety is a great advantage of the Major System.
Major System vs Ben System
However, variety can also be a disadvantage at the same time, since it is now more difficult for beginners to memorize the chosen word and to recognize it quickly when reading. This is one of the major differences of the Major System compared to the Ben System (named after the legendary 3x World Memory Champion Ben Pridmore), where you create exact words with always three letters, which are very easy to read, although sometimes don’t make any sense. But even those can still be used when associated with specific images. If you like to learn more about Ben’s famous system, you can hire him for a private Q&A session in our Meet the Memory Champions program.
Classic Code vs Visual Code
The Major System uses different mnemonics for its code. Each digit-consonant assignment is based on a certain logic. This is very easy to learn. You can, of course, change the following coding to your own associations. We think the classic code is not ideal. For everyone who is interested in our improved Visual Code as an alternative, you can read our separate article about it.
For now, we will take a closer look at the classic code:
0 – Zero
The Major System was originally developed in French and got popular in English, so the following logic appears less clear in some other languages: the zero is assigned to the letter Z because zero is called “zéro” in French, which works great with “zero” in English. This assignment is also the case in other languages, even if the name for zero does not start with the letter Z there. The phonetic sound of the letter Z is called “alveolar fricative” in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This sounds complicated, but we just add these technical terms for the sake of completeness. They are not really important for using the Major System. In the same category we find the letters S as well as the soft C.
We thus assign the letters Z, S, and soft C to the number 0 (zero).
1 – one
The number one uses a visual memory aid: Since the one has a straight, vertical line, we assign the letter T to it. One could also argue that the one looks like an incomplete T. Mirrored on the vertical axis it becomes a decent T. The phonetic sound is referred to as an “alveolar stop” in the IPA. Here we find also the letter D. Some may also use the letter pair TH, a “dental fricative”, as is often used in English (e.g., this, that). This sound, however, sounds even for most English speakers clearly different and should therefore be considered with caution.
We thus assign the letters T and D to the number 1 (one).
2 – two
We also translate the number two visually: Rotate it by 90° counter-clockwise or clockwise. It now looks almost like a large letter N. As a further mnemonic, the N has exactly two straight, vertical dashes to follow the original logic of the number one. The sound of the letter N is called “alveolar nasal” in the IPA and is unique in the normal alphabet. There is another nasal sound with the letter M, but this is already pronounced differently and is therefore in a different sound category.
We thus assign the letter N to the number 2 (two).
3 – three
For the number three we follow the same logic as with the two: Rotate the three by 90° counterclockwise. Now we see a slightly rounded letter M. It might remind you of the logo of a well-known Hamburger franchise. We can also follow the already proven logic of the number one and two by considering the three vertical dashes of a small m. The sound of the letter M is called “bilabial nasal” in the IPA. Just like the N before, the M stands alone in this category.
We thus assign the letter M to the number 3 (three).
4 – four
We now change our logic a bit and use the name of the number four for our memory help, as we already did with the number zero: The fourth letter of the number four is the letter R. Some of you also might see an R in the 4 with a little imagination and rotation. Another small help is the view of a western keyboard where the letter R is directly below the number four. The sound of an R is called “alveolar flap” in the IPA and stands just like the N and M alone.
We thus assign the letter R to the number 4 (four).
5 – five
For the number five, we have a whole bunch of different mnemonics in the Major System: For the visual variant, we look more closely at the upper half of the five and find that there is a perfect, large letter L rotated 90° clockwise. In addition, we can look at the five fingers of our left hand (the back of the hand upwards) and spread the thumb. The index finger and the thumb are now forming an L. Finally, there is also the Roman Number L, which means 50 – close enough. In the IPA an L is called “alveolar approximant” and stands just like its predecessors N, M and R alone. This is a small memory aid in itself since we assign single letters to the 1-5 and multiple letters to the 6-0.
We thus assign the letter L to the number 5 (five).
6 – six
The number six is something special, because among a single letter like before, we are now also assigning letter pairs, which form a single sound. The initial mnemonic, however, begins with the single letter: We mirror the number six on the horizontal axis. This gives a lowercase letter J in writing. The letter J is pronounced differently in different languages and therefore has different groups in the IPA, but all of them are relatively similar. On the one hand, we use “postalveolar affricates“, which corresponds to the English J and the English letter pair CH. We also use “postalveolar fricatives” which correspond to the soft G as well as the letter pair SH. From that we get another mnemonic for English speakers: the six looks like a cherry hanging from a stick. The soft G, however, is usually omitted though due to its rare occurrence in the English language.
We thus assign the letter J and the pairs CH and SH to the number 6 (six).
7 – seven
After the somewhat confusing six, we come to the simpler seven with a visual memory aid again: We turn it by 90° counter-clockwise and double it by mirroring it upwards. We have now a perfect letter K, which consists of exactly two sevens, that touch each other at the pointed bit. The sound is called “velar stop” in the IPA and is identical to the hard C. We also find the hard G in that phonetical group. The letter pair CK as in “sock” is rarely mentioned but perfectly fits here as well.
We thus assign the letters K, hard C, hard G, and the letter pair CK to the number 7 (seven).
8 – Eight
For the eight, we also have a visual mnemonic: imagine a lowercase script F, with a loop drawn on the top and on the bottom. This looks very much like the eight. In the IPA, this sound group is called “labiodental fricatives“, in which is also associated with the letter V. Furthermore, the letter pair PH can be assigned, which sounds identical to the letter F.
We therefore assign the letters F, V, as well as the letter pair PH to the number 8 (Eight).
9 – nine
Let’s get to the last of the ten digits and one of the easiest: the nine looks like a letter P mirrored on the vertical axis. In addition, the nine looks like a lowercase letter b, which is rotated by 180° – but careful with that, since it might lead to confusion with the appearance of the number 6. You should therefore probably focus on the P alone and remember the B through the sound similarity. Their phonetic group is called “labial stop“.
We thus assign the letters P and B to the number 9 (Nine).
Words in the Major System
Now that we have the coding behind us, we come to the rules with which we can now form words. We have encoded the following 16 of the 26 letters of the alphabet: B, C, D, F, G, J, K, L, M, N, P, R, S, T, V and Z. In addition, there are the letter pairs SH, CH, CK and PH.
The vowels A, E, I, O, U remain free. In addition, we have not used the consonants H, Q, W, X, and Y, which is not bad, since they are mostly unimportant and very peculiar. All these letters are now freely available to us to combine with the coded consonants. For this, we place the free letters before, between and behind our encoded letters to form meaningful words. A special rule is that double consonants are combined into one digit, since they sound phonetically almost as a single sound.
Examples & conclusion
As you can see, the possibilities of the Major System are diverse and fun. You can now create lists with 1-digit words and ten images, 2-digit words and 100 images, 3-digit words and 1000 images or even beyond. You should memorize your sets of images to have them available immediately when required. With these images you can then create interesting and memorable stories and connect them in chain stories, your body list, your journeys or whatever memory technique you might favour.
You can use them to learn information like memorize phone numbers, credit card numbers, social security and tax numbers, birthdays but also ordered lists like presidents, the periodic table of elements, your favourite music, books, movies, celebrities and even entire books. But even better, you can use them to train your brain and become a memory athlete by memorizing written numbers, spoken numbers, binary numbers, playing cards, historical dates and much more. Only the sky is the limit.
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