The Major System is a type of Phonetic Number System used to aid in memorizing numbers and playing cards. It appears to be named after Major Beniowski, though the modern major system was first described by Aimé Paris and is built on earlier systems going back hundreds, or possibly even thousands, of years. See the History of the Major System and this article for details.
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. It is related to the Dominic System, the Mnemonic Association System for Numbers, and the Ben System.
The variations between the different Major Systems over the past few centuries is so large, that just about any mnemonic system for assigning sounds to digits could fall under the definition, but today, “Major System” usually refers to the version developed by Francis Fauvel Gouraud (or possibly Aimé Paris, see below), and popularized by Harry Lorayne. Even the Major System that is used by most Mental Athletes in Memory Competitions today is not the same as the one described by Gouraud and Lorayne. The Major System is a collaboratively-designed mnemonic system that is used differently by each mnemonist.
The Major System has evolved over hundreds of years. In its modern form, each numeral is typically associated with one or more consonants like this:
- Assign consonant sounds (not letters) to each digit
- Use those letters to generate visual images that can be memorized in place of the numbers
In the Major System’s most common form today, 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 common arrangement is:
|0||s, z, soft c||z is the first letter of zero. The other letters have a similar sound.|
|1||t, d||d & t have one downstroke and sound similar (some variant systems include th)|
|2||n||n has two downstrokes and looks something like 2 on its side|
|3||m||M has three downstrokes and looks like a 3 on its side|
|4||r||last letter of four, also 4 and R are almost mirror images of each other|
|5||l||L is the Roman Numeral for 50|
|6||sh, soft ch, j, soft g, zh||a script j has a lower loop / g is almost a 6 flipped over|
|7||k, hard c, hard g, hard ch, q, qu||capital K contains two sevens|
|8||f, v||script f resembles a figure-8. V sounds similar. (some variant systems include th)|
|9||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 sounds can be matched to the digits in different ways as long as the person using the system is consistent. In 1808, Gregor von Feinaigle’s system looked like this:
- 0 = s, x, z
- 1 = t
- 2 = n
- 3 = m
- 4 = r
- 5 = l
- 6 = d
- 7 = c, k, g, q
- 8 = b, h, v, w
- 9 = p, f
Here are some other variations as examples:
- The magician Derren Brown, for instance, chooses the number 5 to map to the f and v sounds because the word ‘five’ uses both of those sounds.
- Josh uses b for 6 along with some other modifications
- The Ben System is similar to the Major System in its use of consonants, but expands it with vowels in a similar way to Richard Grey’s method from 1730.
- The Dominic System uses both consonants and vowels, and uses the letters to suggest the initials of people.
- The Harold Mangum System uses phonetic sounds for 0 to 9 based on the most common form of the Major System, mentioned above: Suh, Tuh, Nuh, Muh, Ruh, Luh, Shuh, Cuh, Fuh, Puh.
Yanjaa uses the following consonant assignments:
- 0 = p
- 1 = t
- 2 = n
- 3 = m
- 4 = r
- 5 = s
- 6 = b
- 7 = L
- 8 = f/v
- 9 = g
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.
Examples: The “g” in “ghost” is similar to the “k” in “kilo” or the “c” in “car”, but the “g” in “fragile” is related to the “j” in “James” and the “ch” in “chair”. Double letters don’t matter, only their sounds, so the “ss” in “missile” would be encoded with a single zero, not two zeros. “Missile” would be 305.
Some people create images that contain the exact number of consonants in the number, while others just use the consonants as general guidelines and don’t mind if the word has additional consonants. For example, “ghost” would map to 701, but it could also be mapped to 70 if the final “t” is ignored. It doesn’t matter how you create your images as long as it makes sense to you and you can create a permanent link between the number and the visual image.
Some people use the major system to create mnemonic images on the spot. This is much less effective than having a pre-made set of images for every number. It is recommended that any serious mnemonist have at least one fixed image for every number between 0-9 and 00-99. Some people also have images for 000-999, but it isn’t necessary unless you are entering memory competitions and want a 1000-image system.
Some memory authors recommend making a sentence out of the words you create, but it’s much more effective to have fixed visual images for 0-9 and 00-99 and then string those together with the Method of Loci or Mnemonic Link System (a.k.a., Story Method).
The Major System can be combined with a Mnemonic Peg System for remembering lists, and is sometimes used also as a method of generating the pegs.
If you’re having trouble understanding how the Major System works, read How to Memorize Numbers and watch the video below. You might also want to create a quick Number Shape System to learn the basic process of converting numbers to Mnemonic Images.
Most Mental Athletes today use the Major System to create a set of consistent images for numbers between 00 and 99 or even 000 and 999.
Originally, the Major System was used to create Mnemotechnic Words that were not necessarily the same for each number. The word could be changed according to the thing to be memorized.
For example, the mnemonic for the date of the founding of Rome could be encoded by the mnemotechnic word, colony, which translates to 752 BCE, which is one of the claimed dates for the founding of Rome.
Here are some important mnemonists in the history of the major system. See also Katapayadi System — a phonetic number-memorization system from India that is at least 1300 years old.
The major system was further developed by Stanislaus Mink von Wennsshein 300 years ago.
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).
Boris Konrad mentioned that the book Esels Welt attributes the earliest mention of the modern major system to Aimé Paris. Paris’ 1825 book, Expositions et pratique des procédés de la mnemotechniques, à l’usage des personnes qui veulent étudier la mnémotechnie en général contains a description of the modern major system.
The major system was developed into its modern form as described in this article by Francis Fauvel Gouraud in the 19th Century. For more information see Phreno Mnemotechny by Fauvel Gouraud. It was later popularized by Harry Lorayne, a best-selling contemporary author on memory.
In chapter 17 of his 1936 book, Mind and Memory Training, Ernest Wood claimed to have made some changes to von Feinaigle’s mnemonic system to produce the modern major system as we know it today, but it appears that Wood’s version of the system was published almost 100 years earlier by Gouraud. Wood does mentioned that he studied Gouraud’s memory methods, so it could have been that Wood forgot where the idea originated. This part of the history requires more research.
For pre-made Major System lists, please see the Major System Examples page.
- pinfruit.com Web application for the mnemonic major system
- 2Know is free Windows software for converting numbers to words (English, German, French).
- Mnemisis Another free mnemonic program - runs on Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows
- Rememberg Free web application for converting numbers to words
- How to memorize a mnemonic number or card system
- Hexadecimal Major System
- How to memorise the Major System itself?
- Memory Improvement and Learning Information
- Pseudonumerology Totally dedicated to the Major System.
- Human Memory Online training for the Major System
- Dominic System
- Person-Action System
- Person-Action-Object (PAO) System
- Ben System
- The Shaper System
- Does Photographic Memory Exist?
- Memory Palaces
- List of Memory Techniques