Magnetic resonance is an exceptionally powerful and versatile measurement technique. The basic structure of a magnetic resonance experiment has remained largely unchanged for almost 50 years, being mainly restricted to the qualitative probing of only a limited set of the properties that can in principle be accessed by this technique. Here we introduce an approach to data acquisition, post-processing and visualization—which we term ‘magnetic resonance fingerprinting’ (MRF)—that permits the simultaneous non-invasive quantification of multiple important properties of a material or tissue. MRF thus provides an alternative way to quantitatively detect and analyse complex changes that can represent physical alterations of a substance or early indicators of disease. MRF can also be used to identify the presence of a specific target material or tissue, which will increase the sensitivity, specificity and speed of a magnetic resonance study, and potentially lead to new diagnostic testing methodologies. When paired with an appropriate pattern-recognition algorithm, MRF inherently suppresses measurement errors and can thus improve measurement accuracy.