First of all, I would like to say that this is not meant to be a ‘definitive guide’ to learning morse code! There are many ways to do it, the best way being the one that works for you. This page presents some of the conventional wisdom plus a few ideas on how you might use the morse code generator found at this web site (or morse software running on your own computer). Above all, Regular Practice seems to be the key to drilling the sounds into your head so they become second nature. I’ve reproduced a useful article by David Finley on learning code using the Koch method.
Learning the characters
For the FCC morse test you will need to know all the letters A-Z, the numbers 0-9, some punctuation and some of the more common procedural signals used in amateur radio. These can all be found listed on the Morse Code page. As I mention on the Morse Code page, please dont learn the code as dots and dashes as this can be a real handicap later on when you try and pick up speed.
Learning the code from scratch can be an intimidating task, one way to make it easier is to break the letters down into groups. By starting off learning the simpler letters such as E, I, S, H, T, M and O you can get a feel for how the code sounds and that’s also over 25% of the alphabet already!
The Morse generator allows you to select which letters you want to practice so that you can learn one set, then add in others as you progress, building up to the whole alphabet.
The numbers on their own are actually quite easy to learn, for 1-5, count the number of dit’s; for 6-0 count the number of dah’s. Things get a bit more complicated when its a mixture of letters and numbers but by using the Callsign option on the Morse generator you can get a mixture of letters and numbers and gain valuable practice at copying what can be the trickiest part of the QSO.
Punctuation and prosigns are a bit more involved as they are longer and not as ordered as the numbers, but again, regular practice will help immensely. Also, by seeing where you are in a QSO you can anticipate what prosigns might be coming up so they wont be a total surprise and cause you to miss a few characters. For example, you are only going to hear SK,K and KN at the end of a passage of code; / usually only appears after a callsign, such as AA9PW/5; commas, breaks (BT) and question marks can appear almost anywhere but they have a distinctive rhythm that is hard to miss.
Increasing your speed
Once you know the code, the next step is to increase the speed at which you can copy. A well known aid is to learn code sent using the ‘Farnsworth’ method. This is where the characters are sent at a faster speed, usually 18wpm, but the spaces between the letters and words are increased to bring the overall speed down to the desired value. The advantage of this is that your brain gets used to hearing the code sent at a fast speed, so when the overall speed is increased, the brain already knows the rhythm of the characters, it just has to recognise them slightly faster.
The Morse generator can create code using either the Farnsworth method, or by creating the code strictly according to the speed selected, characters and spaces being proportional to the speed (this is the ‘True timing’ option).
There are a number of free/shareware and commercial software titles available for learning morse, places to look for these include the ARRL infoserver archive, W1.. Mac radio pages, etc. There are also books on the subject, such as the ARRL’s “Morse Code: The Essential Language” by L.P. Carron (W3DKV). The ARRL and others also produce code tapes from 5-22 wpm which you can listen to at home or on the move. Also you might want to try translating road signs and car number plates into morse as you drive along – practice whenever you can!
Above all remember its meant to be fun, if after a while the sounds just blur into one another, its time to stop! Personally, I used the ARRL tapes and practiced a couple of times a day for 10-15 mins and I found them to be pretty good but it doesn’t take too long before you start to know what’s on the tape, which is where computer software comes in handy. If you have an iPhone or iPod then you may find Ham Morse a very useful app to have along so you can practice where ever you like. Of course, if you have a radio, try listening to the real thing on the Novice sections of HF (7.100 to 7.150 MHz is often a good bet in between the AM broadcast stations!) and also W1AW transmissions (See QST for details).
If you have any good suggestions on how to learn the code, please let me know and I will be glad to include them so others can give them a try.
Morse Code Links of Interest
- The Art and Skill of Radio Telegraphy by William G. Pierpont, N0HFF. This is an excellent 240+ page PDF on all aspects of Morse Code, very well worth reading.
- The Beginners Guide to making CW Contacts by Jack Wagoner, WB8FSV
- Wikipedia article on Morse Code – very good broad introduction to CW, covers history, learning the code and more.