How to Remember Numbers: The Major System

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Major System

What is the Major System?

The major system is a mnemonic device that is aids in the memorization and recall of numbers. It can be adapted to the memorization of playing cards and dates as well.

The system works by converting numbers into consonant sounds, then adding vowels to form words. The guiding principle is that it’s easier to remember meaningful words than random numbers.

A Brief History

There are different stories about how the major system developed. Some mnemonic historians claim that it is named after the man who created it, Major Beniowski. While it’s unlikely that he called it the major system, it’s equally unlikely that he made it.

The earliest known version arises circa 1600 by Pierre Herigone. Throughout the century, Stanislaus Mink von Wennsshein made several improvements. Other academics sought to modify the system for the next two hundred years, which often included vowels and consonants in a complicated system.

In 1825 Aime Paris published a version of the major system that bears a close resemblance to its current form. If we were to accredit anyone with today’s major system, it would have to be Paris, with the others as footnotes in its development.

An Example

The number that I want to remember is: 53101740039633.

At the foot of my driveway, an angry lama stood in wait. Every few seconds, he gave the taser in his hand a little test, listening to the sound of fifty-thousand volts shoot between the leads. 

Finally, he saw his enemy lying in wait across the hood of my car: the taco. The lama rushed forward and zapped the taco. With the job done, the lama raced towards the front door, only to be met by the bartender from Cheers, Sam Malone. 

Sam pushed the lama over. Proud of himself, Sam turned the handle and opened the door, where a mime stood guard.

Simplified, it goes: The lama tased a taco, then raced to the door where Sam pushed the lama over. He opened the door and met a mime.

That’s how I remembered the number: 53101740039633.

How it Works

In the example above, I’ve utilized three different systems to make the number vivid and memorable. 

  1. I’ve used the link system to organize the images in order. I’ve applied the principles of exaggeration, movement, substitution, and absurdity. (click here for more information).
  2. I’ve used a memory palace (my front yard) to give it a familiar space (click here for more information).
  3. I’ve applied the major system to remember the numbers themselves.

If you apply these three principles to any number, you’ll be amazed at what you can remember. With only a little bit of review, this sequence of numbers could stick with you for years! That might not be particularly useful for this random string of numbers. Still, it could be helpful to remember a social security number, credit card number, phone number, or anything with numbers!

When I go through the process of recall, I’m not trying to remember numbers at all. I’m trying to recall a little story, like the angry lama. It’s so much easier than remembering random numbers. The process of recalling stories is how memory masters can recite pi to tens of thousands of numbers. The current world record is 70,000 places by Rajveer Meena from India, who set the record on March 21, 2015.

Converting Numbers to Consonants

The chart below shows the typical letter-consonant relationship. Someone might want to create a chart of their own, but there isn’t any reason to do that. These number-consonant pairs have been used for a very long time.

NumberConsonant SoundsRationale
0s, z, soft cSimilar sounds to z in zero.
1t, dThe single downstroke, like 1.
2nA tilted 2 looks similar to n.
3mA tilted 3 looks like an m.
4rThe last letter of four is r.
5lL is the roman numeral for 50.
6sh, chBecause... why not?
7k, hard cCapital K has two 7s in it.
8f, vAn f in cursive has two loops like an 8.
9p, bP is a mirror image of 9.
UnassignedVowelsTo be used anywhere without changing a word's # value.

Once we have mastered the numbers to consonants, we can apply this knowledge to words and phrases.

Different Styles

After we have converted numbers to letters, we can start to create words that will form associations. We could do this in two different ways. First, we could convert numbers to letters and create words on the fly; however, this is inefficient and slow. We would have to think up unique images as we try to encode numbers. Along the way, we may stumble, which could cause us to forget the pictures.

The preferred way to utilize the major system is to create a permanent set of images that we can recall as we see the numbers. The vowels that we choose don’t impact the number associated because vowels are “free.” Also, the word must be easy to visualize. For example, the number one might have toe or tea attached to it.

When assigning permanent words to numbers, we might only use the first ten digits (0 -9); however, we could assign terms to one hundred digits (00-99). People who compete in memory competitions may have images set for one thousand numbers. They use large sets of numbers to avoid repetition. We aren’t going to concern ourselves with a thousand different images because, for now, we aren’t going to compete in memory competitions.

Making it Work

Let’s look at a couple of scenarios. Let’s say we come across the number 32. We’re going to encode this using a small ten-number system and a hundred-number system.

With the ten-number system, 32 is broken down into 3 and 2. The terms we could associate are “me” for 3 and “Neo” (from the Matrix) for 2. It’s me and Neo doing something together. That’s how I’ll remember 32.

Using a hundred-number system, 32 is just 32. All I have to remember is something with an m-n pair. I would use “moon” to remember it. Other options could include main, mean, amen, many, or man. When creating a list of words, it’s important to use ones that you believe are easiest to remember.

The advantage to using a small ten-number system is that it doesn’t take long to memorize ten items. The disadvantage is that it’s one for one. It’s easier to recall ten images than ten numbers, but we still remember ten things.

The advantage to the more extensive hundred-number system is that we remember twenty numbers with ten things. Unfortunately, it takes more time to memorize the chart.

Tips

  1. In selecting images to correspond with numbers, make it as visual as possible.
  2. When converting numbers to images in your mind, make the images as bright and crazy as possible. Remember the principle of exaggeration, movement, substitution, and absurdity? (Click here for more detail!) https://cosmicteapot.net/2021/04/05/memory-technique-the-link-system/) Use those principles here.  
  3. If you’re in the middle of converting numbers to images but forget the image, work through it methodically. First, remember the connection between the consonants and numbers. Then, work through the vowel sounds: first a, then e, i, o, and u. You’ll be able to piece together the word because we’ve used a solid strategy to create the word bank.

Once you’ve sorted out the numbers to words, you can either create a story out of them or use a memory palace to place each word in a location. 

Creating Lists

Now, you can create your list of words for a personalized major system. I’ll provide lists for both ten and one hundred word major systems below. Please feel free to use them all, or some of them, or none. After the list, you will find a quiz for you to test yourself.

Here is a simple 11 number list that you can use. Using a small list is excellent if you’re new to memory systems.

0 – Sauce
1 – Toe
2 – Neo
3 – Ma
4 – Ray
5 – Lay
6 – Jaw
7 – Key
8 – Foe
9 – Pa

For larger numbers, it’s best to double the digits. It helps chunk information into more efficient bits. This is the system that I used in the example above.

The data gets divided into two-digit numbers like this: 53 – 10 – 17 – 40 – 03 – 96 – 33.

Here is the complete list:
00 – Sauce
01 – Stew
02 – Snow
03 – Sam
04 – Sari
05 – Sail
06 – Sushi
07 – Suck
08 – Sieve
09 – Sap
10 – Tase
11 – Teat
12 – Tuna
13 – Team
14 – Tree
15 – Tail
16 – Teach
17 – Taco
18 – Toffee
19 – Tap
20 – Nose
21 – Nut
22 – Nan
23 – ‘Nam (Like Viet Nam)
24 – Nero
25 – Nail
26 – Nacho
27 – Neck
28 – Nave
29 – Nap
30 – Maze
31 – Mat
32 – Moon
33 – Mime
34 – Mare
35 – Mail
36 – Mash
37 – Make
38 – Move
39 – Mop
40 – Race
41 – Rat
42 – Rain
43 – Ram
44 – Rear
45 – Roll
46 – Rash
47 – Rock
48 – Rave
49 – Rap
50 – Lose
51 – Laid
52 – Lane
53 – Lama
54 – Lure
55 – Lily
56 – Leech
57 – Lick
58 – Laugh
59 – Leap
60 – Cheese
61 – Shit
62 – Chain
63 – Chum
64 – Chair
65 – Chill
66 – Cha-cha
67 – Check
68 – Chef
69 – Shape
70 – Kiss
71 – Cat
72 – Can
73 – Came
74 – Car
75 – Kill
76 – Cash
77 – Kick
78 – Cough
79 – Cab
80 – Face
81 – Fight
82 – Fan
83 – Foam
84 – Fair
85 – Fall
86 – Fish
87 – Fake
88 – Fife
89 – Fab
90 – Pass
91 – Pet
92 – Pan
93 – Puma
94 – Par
95 – Peel
96 – Push
97 – Pack
98 – Puff
99 – Peep

Reflecting on the First Example

Remember the story in the example above? The short version is: the lama tased a taco, then raced to the door where Sam pushed the lama over. He opened the door and met a mime.

We can now piece it all together. The number 53 contains the sounds l and m. I created the word lama with those sounds. The rest are as follows:

53 (l – m) lama

10 (t – s) tase

17 (t – k) taco

40 (r – s) race

03 (s – m) same

96 (p – sh) push

33 ( m – m) mime 

Last Words

The more time you spend getting to know the words and their numerical associations, the more efficient you become at memorizing numbers. It doesn’t take long to become proficient at it. As you practice, you’ll find that you will become more creative, and remembering anything will become faster.

If you find that certain words give you a hard time, swap it out for a new word. It’s finding the correct associations for you.

Quiz

Using the major system, memorize one set one numbers. Once you’ve learned the number, hide it, write the number down, and check it. Move on to the next.

64865
67173
35554
28929
55703

446339

551398

161612

500043

457004

1055115

1505135

7225835

4023567

4817744

10072082

59885115

78490499

57039383

95980413

752858431

339642350

767189779

810012265

650999865

7369870539

6992254508

8077877468

1819411904

5174558629

 

632648595828

73172018768547

1418083445368522

958489993626299591

73944022453627202053

7032581144809186163684

923063955386114000670477909

1491801812622595321564906464655

2406089921812696646281388806402582330817683

33266235673922252700459217449858243740110035190499619

Dylan Callens

About the Author...

Dylan Callens is a writer and educator living in Sudbury, Ontario. 

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