How to memorise the periodic table names & symbols

Written by autumn st. john
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How to memorise the periodic table names & symbols
It's possible to memorise all 118 periodic elements. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

The periodic table of elements is notoriously difficult to memorise, but chemistry students and enthusiasts throughout history have managed to do so and still do. Although people with particularly good memories or an affinity for numbers might choose to learn and recite the elements by their atomic number, it is far more common to directly memorise the element names, or to memorise them by their symbols.


Word play can be a wonderful tool for memorising almost anything. For each element’s name and symbol, think of an easily memorable word that rhymes with it. "Stadium" rhymes with "radium" and "ma" rhymes with radium’s symbol "Ra." For more obscure elements, you may only be able to find rhymes for their symbols. Alternatively, find an alliterative adjective to associate with each element name. Ideally the adjective will reflect a characteristic of the element. Helium gives you a high voice, so call it “high helium.”


If you have a more visual memory, flashcards can be a useful aid. Write the symbol or name, or both, of each element on a flashcard and read through all the flashcards at least three times a day. An even more visual method of learning the various elements is to use a photographic periodic table, where each element is represented not also by its name and symbol, but also by a photo of it. Find a photographic periodic table online, print it out and study it daily until your mind automatically associates each element's photo with the element's name and symbol. Whenever you're trying to think of a particular element, you'll see the image of the element in your mind and this will remind you of the element's name and symbol.


Certain types of learner are more likely to remember something if it makes them laugh than if they’re simply learning it as a fact. For this reason, periodic table jokes are very popular with those trying to memorise the various elements and their symbols. For example, one joke helps students to learn the symbol for gold: "Silver walks up to Gold in a bar and says, "AU, get out of here!" Other examples of puns based on elements include "This is so boron!" and "Is she Indium?" You might try making up and memorising your own one liners for each element's name.


Like humour, music can make memorising information fun. Make a playlist of songs with periodic element names in their title or lyrics. The playlist might include "Gold" by Spandau Ballet, "Titanium" by David Guetta and Bob Marley's "Iron Zion Lion." Repeatedly listening to these tracks will reinforce the existence of the elements in your mind. You might also want to invent your own song, putting element names you find easy to remember together with those you have trouble memorising. For example, you could start off the song with “She had hair of gold and cobalt blue eyes/But a heart like lead, to my sad surprise.” Sandwiching cobalt between gold and lead may make it easier to remember if you sing your song in the shower enough.

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