Mnemonic major system

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The Major System (also called the phonetic number system, phonetic mnemonic system, or Herigone's mnemonic system) is a mnemonic technique used to aid in memorizing numbers.

The system works by converting numbers into consonant sounds, then into words by adding vowels. The system works on the principle that images can be remembered more easily than numbers.

The system[edit]

Each numeral is associated with one or more consonants. Vowels and the consonants w, h, and y are ignored. These can be used as "fillers" to make sensible words from the resulting consonant sequences. The most popular mapping is:

Numeral IPA Associated Consonants Mnemonic
0 /s/ /z/ s, z, soft c "z" is the first letter of zero. The other letters have a similar sound.
1 /t/ /d/ t, d t & d have one downstroke and sound similar (some variant systems include "th")
2 /n/ n n has two downstrokes
3 /m/ m M has three downstrokes and looks like a "3" on its side
4 /r/ r last letter of four, also 4 and R are almost mirror images of each other
5 /l/ l L is the Roman Numeral for 50
6 /ʃ/ /ʒ/
/tʃ/ /dʒ/
j, sh, soft g, soft "ch" a script j has a lower loop / g is almost a 6 rotated
7 /k/ /ɡ/ k, hard c, hard g, hard "ch", q, qu capital K "contains" two sevens (some variant systems include "ng")
8 /f/ /v/ f, v script f resembles a figure-8. V sounds similar. (v is a voiced f)
9 /p/ /b/ p, b p is a mirror-image 9. b sounds similar and resembles a 9 rolled around
Unassigned Vowel sounds, w,h,y These can be used anywhere without changing a word's number value

The groups of similar sounds and the rules for applying the mappings are almost always fixed, but other hooks and mappings can be used as long as the person using the system can remember them and apply them consistently.

Each numeral maps to a set of similar sounds with similar mouth and tongue positions. The link is phonetic, that is to say, it is the consonant sounds that matter, not the spelling. Therefore a word like action would encode the number 762 (k-ch-n), not 712 (k-t-n); and ghost would be 701 (g-z-t), while, because the gh in enough is pronounced like an f, the word enough encodes the number 28 (n-f). Similarly, double letters are disregarded. The word missile is mapped to 305 (m-z-l), not 3005 (m-z-z-l). To encode 3005 one would use something like mossy sail. Often the mapping is compact. Hindquarters, for example, translates unambiguously to 2174140 (n-d-qu-r-t-r-z), which amounts to 7 digits encoded by 8 letters, and can be easily visualized.

For most people it would be easier to remember 3.1415927 (an approximation of the mathematical constant pi) as:

MeTeoR (314) TaiL (15) PiNK (927)

Short term visual memory of imagined scenes allows large numbers of digits to be memorized with ease, though usually only for a short time.

Whilst this is unwieldy at first, with practice it can become a very effective technique. Longer-term memory may require the formulation of more object-related mnemonics with greater logical connection, perhaps forming grammatical sentences that apply to the matter rather than just strings of images.

The system can be employed with phone numbers. One would typically make up multiple words, preferably a sentence, or an ordered sequence of images featuring the owner of the number.

The Major System can be combined with a peg system for remembering lists, and is sometimes used also as a method of generating the pegs. It can also be combined with other memory techniques such as rhyming, substitute words, or the method of loci. Repetition and concentration using the ordinary memory is still required.

An advantage of the major system is that it is possible to use a computer to automatically translate the number into a set of words. One can then pick the best of several alternatives. Such programs include "Numzi"[1] "Rememberg"[2] "Fonbee",[3] the freeware "2Know",[4] and the website "pinfruit".[5]


A different memory system, the method of loci was taught to schoolchildren for centuries, at least until 1584, "when Puritan reformers declared it unholy for encouraging bizarre and irreverent images."[6] The same objection can be made over the major system, with or without the method of loci. Mental images may be easier to remember if they are insulting, violent, or obscene (see Von Restorff effect).

Pierre Hérigone (1580–1643) was a French mathematician and astronomer and devised the earliest version of the major system. The major system was further developed by Stanislaus Mink von Wennsshein 300 years ago. It was later elaborated upon by other users. In 1730, Richard Grey set forth a complicated system that used both consonants and vowels to represent the digits. In 1808 Gregor von Feinaigle introduced the improvement of representing the digits by consonant sounds (but reversed the values of 8 and 9 compared to those listed above).

In 1825 Aimé Paris published the first known version of the major system in its modern form.[7]

In 1844 Francis Fauvel Gouraud (1808-1847) delivered a series of lectures introducing his mnemonic system which was based on Aimé Paris' version. The lectures drew some of the largest crowds ever assembled to hear lectures of a "scientific" nature up to that time. This series of lectures was later published as Phreno-Mnemotechny or The Art of Memory in 1845 and his system received wide acclaim. The system described in this article would again be popularized by Harry Lorayne, a best selling contemporary author on memory.

The name "major system" refers to Major Beniowski, who published a version of the system in his book, The Anti-Absurd or Phrenotypic English Pronouncing and Orthographical Dictionary.[8]

Phonetic number memorization systems also occur in other parts of the world, such as the Katapayadi system going back to at least the 7th Century in India.


Memory feats centred around numbers can be performed by experts who have learned a 'vocabulary' of at least 1 image for every 1 and 2 digit number which can be combined to form narratives. To learn a vocabulary of 3 digit numbers is harder because for each extra digit 10 times more images need to be learned, but many mnemonists use a set of 1000 images. Combination of images into a narrative is easier to do rapidly than is forming a coherent, grammatical sentence. This pre-memorisation and practice at forming images reduces the time required to think up a good imaginary object and create a strong memorable impression of it. The best words for this purpose are usually nouns, especially those for distinctive objects which make a strong impression on a variety of senses (e.g. a "Lime" for 53, its taste, its smell, its colour and even its texture are distinctive) or which move (like an "arrow" for 4). For basic proficiency a large vocabulary of image words isn't really necessary since, when the table above is reliably learned, it is easy to form your own words ad hoc.

Indexing Sequences[edit]

Mnemonics often centre around learning a complete sequence where all objects in that sequence that come before the one you are trying to recall must be recalled first. For instance, if you were using the mnemonic "Richard of York gave battle in vain" for the colours of the rainbow; (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet) to remember what colour comes after indigo you would have to recall the whole sequence. For a short sequence this may be trivial; for longer lists, it can become complicated and error-prone.

A good example would be in recalling what is the 53rd element of the periodic table. It might be possible for some people to construct and then learn a string of 53 or more items which you have substituted for the elements and then to recall them one by one, counting them off as you go, but it would be a great deal easier and less laborious/tedious to directly associate element 53 with, for example, a lime (a suitable mnemonic for 53) recalling some prior imagining of yours regarding a mishap where lime juice gets into one's eye - "eye" sounding like "I", the symbol for Iodine.

If you were remembering element 53 in the process of recalling the periodic table you could then recall an image for 54, for instance thinking of a friend called "Laura" (54) in the lotus position looking very Zen-like in order to remind yourself that element 54 is Xenon.

This is an example of combining the Major System with the peg system.

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