The major system (also called phonetic system or phonetic mnemonic system) is a famous mnemonic technique used to aid in memorizing numbers. It is over 300 years old and was introduced by Stanislaus Mink von Wennsshein and later developed by Dr. Richard Grey. It works by converting numbers into words. The words can then be remembered more easily, especially when using other techniques such as exaggerations of concepts involving multiple senses (vision, sound, smell).

Each digit is mapped onto a number of consonants. Vowels and the consonants W/H/Y are ignored and can be used as 'fillers' to make up sensible words from the resulting consonant sequences. The mapping is:

0: s,z
1: d,t,th
2: n,ing
3: m
4: r
5: l
6: j,sh,ch,zh (like the s in vision)
7: k,hard g
8: f,v
9: b,p

The mapping is phonetic, so it's the sounds that matter, not the spelling. Each digit maps to a set of sounds with similar mouth and tongue positions.

Example: to remember the year in which the National Portrait Gallery in London was opened (1856), we first perform the mapping:

  • 1 -> d,t,th
  • 8 -> f,v
  • 5 -> l
  • 6 -> j,sh,ch,zh

So we can make up 'DaFfy LoDGe', and we think of the Portrait Gallery as a lodge in which Daffy Duck resides (the more silly the image, the easier it is to recall).

Going the other way, we can reverse the mapping and get the year. This works also very well with phone numbers: here you would typically come up with multiple words which you need to memorise in a sequence.

For most people, it is easier to remember an image or story incorporating words than it is to remember strings of digits. For example, it may be easier to remember "moderately pendulum" than to directly memorize the first 10 digits of Pi (3.141592653). It's moderately difficult to make a pendulum out of an apple pie. A vivid image of that sentence might be remembered more easily than directly memorizing 3.141592653=Pi.

The major system isn't always the best way to remember a number. The first 16 digits of e are 2.718281828459045. If you invented a new way to fold a flag so that it would open up in the shape of an E, could you patent that? Negative: it isn't innovative to unfurl bizarrely as an E. That sentence could be used to memorize the first 16 digits of e. On the other hand, some people might find it easier to remember them directly by grouping them this way:

 2.7         the standard approximation of e
 1828        a year
 1828        the same year again
 45 90 45    cut a square in half to get a triangle with these angles
The "best" technique depends on the person and the situation, but the major system can be a helpful tool in many cases.

The major system is sometimes combined with a peg system for remembering lists.

Dominic System

One variant of the Major system is the Dominic System. This was invented by Dominic O'Brien. The system uses images of well known people rather than words. Numbers are coded into images.The sytem is based on the idea that information about people is better remembered than other information. The Dominic System requires you know a lot of people with different initials.

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