Introduction to The Major System

Not a major pain, really.Most mnemonic techniques rely on converting the items you’d like to memorize into vivid mental images.

For example, if you needed to remember “metatarsal” in a list of bones, you might conjure up a visual of yourself shaking hands with a seal that is swimming in a tar-pit. As in “met a tar seal.” Interestingly, the more senses you can attach to this image, the easier it will stick. What color is the seal? Can you smell the tarpit? Is the seal barking? Is it a hot day?

All of these senses electrically activate different areas of your brain. So, the more “hooks” you can attach to the image, the more likely you are to remember it in the future. You might only get an initial, acrid, mental whiff of tar… and suddenly the entire image springs into your consciousness. Or, maybe the seal barking is your first connection on another day. The point is, you are giving yourself a much more robust memory mechanism compared to how we were taught to memorize in high school. What were we trying to save to the old hard drive back then? An image of the word “metatarsal” as black text on a white background? You are probably only electrically tapping a single area of the brain with that. No wonder it didn’t stick.

The next logical question: What about memorizing numbers?

Numbers are inherently abstract. In my previous post on The Rhyming Peg List, I covered one way to visualize the numbers 1 through 10. But, what about a number like 3212? Turns out there are a few different mnemonic systems built for this, but one of the oldest and most popular is The Major System. It relies on a translation of numbers to phonetic sounds in order to build words… words that can then be visualized- as described with our tar-pit seal.

Here are the phonetic conversions:

  • 0 – s (z)
  • 1 – t (d)
  • 2 – n
  • 3 – m
  • 4 – r
  • 5 – l
  • 6 – ch (sh, j, zh)
  • 7 – k (g)
  • 8 – f (v)
  • 9 – p (b)

Actually, you’d better think of these conversions by the actual consonant sound, not the letter name:

  • 0 – suh (zuh)
  • 1 – tuh (duh)
  • 2 – nuh
  • 3 – muh
  • 4 – ruh
  • 5 – luh
  • 6 – chuh (shuh, juh, zhuh)
  • 7 – kuh (guh)
  • 8 – fuh (vuh)
  • 9 – puh (buh)

Take 3212, for example. You simply string together the corresponding consonant sounds:

muh nuh tuh nuh

At this point, you are free to insert vowels wherever you like in order to form a word or words.

M-ow-N-T-a-N = mountain = 3212

Or, if you are a Jersey Shore fan, maybe you convert it to

M-a-N    T-a-N = man tan = 3212

So, 3212 could be stored in your brain as a very orange “The Situation” or an iconic view of Mount Everest.

Sounds like too much work?

Yeah, that’s what I thought initially, too.

There are a few different strategies for locking in the phonetic conversions. Think of it like learning to count to ten in another language, though. Pretty quickly, “dos” immediately makes you think of “two” with no mental translation effort. My favorite approach (or rather the first one I encountered) comes from Jared Kelner’s Infinite Mind audio series. Ron White has a different method that will result in the same end goal. Yet another path can be found over at the fantastic Mnemotechnics website.

I think this system came easily to me because I minored in Russian Language back in engineering school. Russian is an extremely phonetic language. Westerners trying to learn Russian are often met with quizzical responses from native Russian speakers when asking how to spell a newly encountered word. Take the word “Девушка” (Girl) for example:

  • Д = d
  • е = yeh
  • в = v
  • у = oo
  • ш = sh
  • к = k
  • а = ah (or uh without the stress)

So, the word is pronounced d-YEH-v-oo-sh-k-uh

If you ask a Russian how to spell that in Cyrillic, they will slowly and loudly say, “DYEH!… VOO!… SHKUH!” This is kind of like when Americans think they can just speak louder to get a foreigner to understand them 🙂

My old Russian studies also helped me with the hard and soft consonant bit of The Major System. Notice that there are a few options for some of the numbers:

  • 0 – s (z)
  • 1 – t (d)
  • 6 – ch (sh, j, zhuh)
  • 7 – k (g)
  • 8 – f (v)
  • 9 – p (b)

This comes from the idea that your mouth and tongue are basically held in the same position to create a family of consonants. There is only a subtle change in the shape of your tongue to produce the “suh” or “zuh” sound. Test it out right now with the consonant families above. See what I mean?

There are numerous examples of this in Russian. The one that bothers me the most shows up in our mispronunciation of Russian last names ending in “ov.” Take Yuri Andropov ( Юрий Андропов), for instance. When the  “в” (vuh to English speakers) appears at the end of a Russian word, it takes on the hard form of the consonant family. So, most Americans will call him Androp-ov when they should be calling him Androp-off.

Anyway, once you wrap your head around the idea of consonant families based on tongue shape and mouth position, it quickly makes sense.

Yet another area of the brain tapped

I’ve made an interesting observation while mastering The Major System: when I see or think of certain numbers, my tongue and mouth often automatically start to make the shapes associated with the corresponding consonant families. This tells me I’ve created a whole new “hook” to electrically light up a new part of my brain.  A part I’ve never used for this kind of association in my almost 40 years on the planet!  Herein lies the beauty and power of mnemonics. It is quite possible to create and exercise new neural pathways even if you weren’t born an idiot savant! (1 out of 2 for me, by the way.)

How to practice

I ain’t gonna lie. It takes a little work to make these phonetic number conversions second nature. I came up with a little exercise that greatly accelerated my mastery. While driving, I would pick out street signs, house numbers, etc, and try to convert them to words and images before I actually passed them. So, the moment I saw an Interstate 95 sign, I would begin to change it to b-?-l… Bowl! Then I’d get an image of a cereal bowl in my mind as quickly as possible. Start with 2 digit numbers. Then work your way up to 3 and 4 digit groups. If your eyesight is aging, you’ll just have to be faster than the youngsters!

In practice

I’ll share a final example of how I use this technique in daily life. I have been a road warrior for many years. After a hundred hotels, they all start to look the same. It used to be impossible for me to remember my hotel room numbers. Usually the front desk lady writes your room number on the outside of your key-card envelope. I finally took to ripping that section of the envelope off and immediately sticking it in my pocket with the card.

Now, I use The Major System in combination with another system I’ll cover in a future post. I have had 100% success in my hotel stays over the last six months. In fact, I still remember the first room number I tried it on. It was room 1148. I used a black and white image of Toto (the dog from wizard of oz) standing at the peak of a roof and barking. I got there by changing 11 (T-T) to Toto and 48 (R-F) to roof. It was the first thing that popped in my mind (which is always best as it turns out).

Give this a try and let me know if it works for you!

Image by Monica’s Dad

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3 comments

  1. Loving it, Jeff! This is gonna be a blast.

    1. Oh no… I can see you sinking your teeth into this and becoming a monster. Wait until you find the trick that will let you give the day of the week for any date in history…

  2. […] of 10 random items. It worked shockingly well! Since then, I’ve used it (in combination with The Major System, to memorize all sorts of things that I otherwise would have deemed […]