[This page is a complement to the How to memorize numbers and cards page]
The Major system and its alternatives are number-sound codes that works by converting numbers into consonant sounds, then into words by adding vowels. You first assign consonant sounds (not letters) to each digit, then use those letters plus some other letters of your choice to generate visual images that can be memorized in place of the numbers. 3 is usually an M, 1 is usually a T or a D (two similar sounds). To remember 31, you’ll need to use those M + T or D sounds to improvise an image. A MoTocycle maybe? A MuTant? A MiNe?
There are different ways one can choose to convert numbers into sounds. By far the most well-known number-sound code is called the Major system. But there are others. The image below is meant to explain the classic Major system and 2 possible alternatives.
The Major system and two alternative versions:
Which version should you choose?
What you end up choosing probably doesn’t matter in the long run. It will only makes things slightly easier or harder for you to become familiar with. I would suggest that you just take a relatively quick look at those possibilities and choose the one the feels the most intuitive to you. Don’t overthink it too much.
I hope you will end up choosing the version I made up and (mostly) jokingly called the “BEST” version here. I won’t be offended if you prefer the classical version or the “Visual version”. The “Visual version” shown below was developed by Florian Dellé and Johannes Mallow and presented on their website Thinkkniht.com. All the flag-like images shown above were borrowed from their website.
You can also make up your own version if you prefer. If you go that route, you might want to keep the same basic sounds. They include most of those we commonly use. It will also help if you want to be able to easily recycle some of those publicly available major system-based lists out there.
If you need more tricks to remember the code
Most of the images above should be clear enough. If you want more explanations:
- You can read more about the “Visual version” by Florian Dellé and Johannes Mallow in this article.
- You can learn more about the classic Major system in this video and/or this article or this one.
- My personal version is explained in more detail here, but only in French so far.
Some more tricks to remember the classic Major system:
Those “tricks” are only useful at first. Soon the association between the numbers and the sounds will become fully automatic. You can also make up your own “tricks”. For me 8 is an R partly because I can easily imagine the 8 falling on its side and becoming two Rolling wheels of a Racing car. –
How to really learn your new number-sound code system
First focus on each digit and the corresponding “trick” you’ve used to remember the corresponding sounds and test yourself once or twice. That’s a good first step, but not quite good enough. You will need some practice for the associations to become more quick and automatic. Long-term, you don’t want to see 85 and have to spend 10 seconds having to think “ok so the 8 is an F, the 5 is ehhhhh a L, so 85 is … FaLa…”. You want the whole process to become almost instantaneous.
How to achieve that? From now on, in your daily life, every time you see a number or a playing card anywhere, try to “read” it using those sounds. Notice how easier it gets day after day.
More efficient yet, try this exercise:
- Pick a deck of cards and remove all the Jokers, Jacks, Queens and Kings.
- Shuffle the rest and look at each card one after the other while remembering the corresponding sound for each. Ignore the colors for now. Doesn’t matter if the card is a spade or a heart or a club or a diamond or whatever. Just look at the numbers and try to think of the corresponding sound as quickly as possible. Treat the 10s as if they were 0s (just ignore the “1” in the “10”) and treat the Aces as if they were 1s.
- Go through the whole deck while thinking of the different corresponding sounds. When you’re done, just shuffle and try to do it again a little faster. There’s no point doing that exercise for too long, but you could do it maybe twice a day for 3 days, always a little faster.
* In your mind, instead of saying “S”, “R”, “M” and so on, you might want to mentally add the sound “a” after each consonant sound. You will see 94-65 and think (with the classic version) “PaRa – ChaLa”. This tiny additional step will make the translation to images a little bit easier later on. “PaRa” might lead you to imagine a PaRatrooper or a BoaR. “Chala” might make you think of a JaiL, some SheLls or some JeLly. Remember that it’s not the letters that count, it’s the sounds. 9 can be a P or B because the sounds are somewhat similar. Same for 6 and the associated Sh, Ch and J sounds.
Remembering numbers with improvised images
Whenever you have some numbers to memorize, you can choose to use this code to improvise images that you will place inside an improvised memory palace. I’ve seen a complete beginner manage to memorize 40 digits perfectly in 10 minutes in his first attempt using just this improvised strategy.
You can also choose to not bother with memory palaces. Improvised stories can be made up where the first image is interacting with the second, the second image is interacting with the third and so on. Or you can come up with some absurd short sentences. While saying those out loud or in your mind, put some added emphasis on all the sounds corresponding to numbers.
It’s ok if you don’t want to push things any further than that. I will still respect you! But… I am indeed hoping that you will want to reach the next levels.
What I’m hoping you will do instead:
- Step one: Choose a number-sound code that you like.
- Step two: Learn it: It’s just 10 sounds that need to associate with 0 to 9.
- Step three: Choose 100 images for every digit from 00 to 99. Or just 52 images if you want to start with playing cards before moving to numbers.
- Step four: Learn those 100 images (or 52 or less if you want to start with just a few cards)
- Step five: Practice using them until it becomes easy enough for you.
- Step six: Live happily ever after
Does this sound like a lot of work? It can be if you’re a perfectionist, but it really doesn’t have to be. You can go through steps 1 to 4 in two afternoons and start practicing using it (step 5)) the following day. How long it will take for you to reach the “easy enough” stage will depend on your standards and other factors, but it also doesn’t need to be terribly long. Learning such a system can be done much faster than a 2-digit PAO system and it can be just as efficient. I now also suspect that training with this is a better way to improve your overall memory skills, but that’s just a hypothesis.
How to convert sounds into images
Note that with any system you choose, you don’t have to always strictly follow all the rules if you don’t feel like it. The code is there to help you become familiar with your 100 images faster, but nothing is forcing you to follow it strictly if you don’t want to. No matter what you choose and what method you use, after a while, you’ll just see 96-43 and think of the two associated images without having to think of the code. Sometimes it will be harder to find a fitting image for some combination of sounds. In those case you can check out some of the tools and publicly available lists found here. Or you can get creative with the code. The image made with the N and C/K/G sound could be something straightforward like a NuKe, NiKe, a NiQab or Nicolas Cage, or you could decide that it will stand for “aN eaGle”, for “No Go”, for “uNiQue” or for some completely invented word you made up. In each case, it’s up to you to decide what exactly will those words represent.
* It is also up to you to determine which sounds in the word in question correspond to numbers. Personally I prefer to use the first few sounds of any given word, but there are no law forcing you to do the same. James Bond, for example, could be used to represent (with the classic code) either 69 (JB), 63 (JaMes), 91 (BonD) or maybe even 60 (JameS). Whether it is one or the other is not a problem as long as it seems clear in your head. Double consonants (moss, blizzard, jogging) are usually only counted once, but you can count them twice if you prefer.
* You can also choose to completely ignore the code in some cases. You could for example decide that 13 is gonna be some monster from a horror movie, 50 is will be the rapper 50 Cent and 52 will be a deck of cards. You can even decide that 91 will be the Queen of England with a chainsaw for no reason at all, even if the number-sound code doesn’t fit and there are no obvious link between that number and that crazy image.
*At least half of your images should be objects or something else, not characters. About 1/3 characters and about 2/3 objects or something else seems like a decent ratio. I know some people prefer using up to 90% objects, but I do enjoy using plenty of colorful characters. Personally, sometimes my “characters” will be not just one person but a small group of people or creatures (2 mafia goons, 4 mariachis, the Backstreet Boys or even a small army of ancient Roman soldiers for example). I also use the concept of “objects” in an extremely loosely defined way. It doesn’t have to be a pair of scissors. It could also be R2D2, an animal, a mountain, a small deserted island, a tornado, a vortex, an earthquake, a laser coming out of the sky or whatever.
- Click here for a few suggestions of possible images for each number with the classic Major system.
- Click here instead for those same suggestions with my personal alternative number-sound code.
How to learn all those new images
How to use your new system to remember playing cards
If you already have a system for numbers, you can learn to memorize cards in just a few minutes.
* You can also choose to start with cards before moving on to numbers. You can even start with just the 12 face cards. Learning 12 or 52 images is significantly faster and easier than learning 100. Starting to get some “real” practice as soon as possible might be a great idea. And it might help you make a better job later on when you’ll choose the rest of your 100 images system.
How to use your images for numbers or cards in a memorable way
All right so you now have your fancy new system, you know at least some of it and you want to start practicing. Have you memorized a list of words with a memory palace before? If not, you should. Your stories for 50 digits will look similar to your stories for 25 words. Just like you did with words, you will place 2 images on your bed, 2 images on the nearby piece of furniture, 2 images near the door leading to the next room and so on.
The main difference is that – unlike words – you won’t have to improvise much when it comes to choosing your images. You will see 53-35 and automatically think LiMe and MiLk. However, you will still have to get creative with the particular ways you’re going to make those images memorable. How they are going to be interacting with the locations and with one another. So for 5335, you could have an anthropomorphized lime either breastfeeding or buying some milk or swimming in milk or slipping on milk that was dropped on the floor and so on. Or it could be you adding some lime to your milk to make it taste better. For 3553, you would have milk and lime again, but in a different order. You could use the same images with a mental note that milk comes before lime, or you could use the way they are positioned (milk above lime, or milk to your left and lime to your right), but the best choice I think would be to modify the way those 2 images are interacting. Maybe milk could be raining on a lime tree to make it grow faster, or a lime could be found hidden inside your glass of milk.