This is the second of a two-part article on learning Morse Code. In the first part, which was published last week, the author discussed how not to learn the code and avoid causing problems for yourself. In this part, he explains how to use the aural method for learning Morse Code.
The skill you want to develop in learning Morse code is to hear a sound and write (or type) a letter. Hear, write, hear, write.
Learning Morse Code
To do this, ideally, you should be sent the letter in Morse code at a relatively high rate of speed (I recommend 15 to 20 words per minute) and write the letter over and over until you are familiar with the letter.
Then do another one. For example, didah A. didah A, didah A, didah A. Learn three or four letters at a time. Then have these letters sent to you in short words, including what you just learned and any letters previously learned. The individual letters should be sent fast, but with plenty of time in between for you to react, say two or three seconds.
This type of learning makes it difficult for you to memorize the letters as certain combinations of dits and dahs and fairly forces you to hear and react to letter sounds instead. Learning the letter sounds initially eliminates the problem of a “plateau,” later on. There is, then, a smooth progression of code speed from learning to mastering.
It is gratifying for me as a former instructor to see someone go painlessly from beginner to high-speed operator in a smooth and uninterrupted manner. It isn’t too hard to take for the student either!
If you don’t have a handy radio operator to teach you the code, there are a number of CDs available that do the job pretty nicely. Among the many outfits that produce continuous wave (radio parlance for Morse communications) learning tapes are American Radio Relay League. The ARRL probably has the most extensive and best quality literature on Amateur Radio and electronics.
Frankly, the “poor man’s” approach, while not ideal, is also quite effective. Use the accompanying chart in this article and simply pronounce the letter sounds to yourself. Do this pronunciation rapidly to yourself over and over. Read it from the page the first time then say it to yourself repeatedly without looking at the page: “I didit, I didit, I didit, I didit, I didit . . . etc.
By the way, this can be done silently, to yourself, if you’d like to avoid strange looks on the street. I recommend not trying to learn more than about three or four letters at a sitting. Each time you learn three new letters, make up some words using those letters and all the letters you’ve learned previously, and verbally send them to yourself.
Remember to pronounce the code characters rapidly, so as to impress a letter sound rather than a counted series of dits and dabs on your mind.
The order in which you learn the letters is not very important, except that they should absolutely not be learned in alphabetic order, i.e., a, b, c… etc. I like to intersperse the shorter and simpler characters with the longer, more complex letters so as not to lump all the more difficult ones together.
CDs for learning Morse code
Once you have learned the basic alphabet and are practicing, you really should graduate to either CDs, or listening to CW on the air with a shortwave receiver. CDs are the simplest and least expensive approach to practice, especially since most short-wave radios on the market are totally unsuited to copying CW.
Learning the proper style is far, far more important, initially, than accuracy. When you copy a CD, discipline yourself to copy the letter immediately, or not at all. If you cannot decipher the character right away, skip it. Do not stop to think about it. Thinking about it is a bad habit to develop.
What will happen in real life is that while you’re thinking about a hard to remember the letter, several others will slip by, and while you’re chasing those, several words will be lost.
If you train yourself to respond immediately or not at all, you will have lousy accuracy at first, but so what? When you are more practiced, this habit will limit your occasional error to just the one letter you missed (you can usually go back and figure out what it was anyway) rather than whole chunks of the message being lost.
It is also a good way to reinforce the use of the reflexive rather than the cognitive part of your brain, and that is very important. Another way to reinforce reflex is to guess rather than waiting to be certain. That’s right when you hear a letter sound immediately guess at what it is. It’s rather funny to see how the accuracy of your “guesses” gets better and better as you practice.
If you do invest in a good quality communications receiver, not only will you be able to listen to casual Ham and other CW traffic, but more importantly, you will be able to listen to the regularly scheduled broadcasts of the American Radio Relay League’s station W1AW.
W1AW sends practice code at various speeds for the use of people with varying levels of expertise. Send off to the ARRL for a schedule, they’d be happy to send you one. They also appreciate a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Their broadcast schedule can be seen here
They are loud and clear in the eastern and Midwestern parts of the country and are usually copiable, though somewhat less strongly, in the west.
If you decide to buy a shortwave receiver, be very, very cautious. There are several very expensive and many cheaper makes and models of radio that are absolutely useless for copying code. Even though some claim the capability. Some of the manufacturers of excellent communications receivers and transceivers are ICOM, Yaesu, Kenwood, and Collins.
New, these rigs tend to be rather expensive, but there are many great buys in used equipment, particularly in the older tube-type radios. The price and age of second-hand equipment is not at all as important as whether or not it was originally intended to be used for CW communications. Get the advice of an experienced Ham who is active in CW if you can.
Remember, though, that most shortwave radios sold are intended primarily for listening to foreign broadcast stations like the BBC and Voice of America. This is also fun but won’t help your code much.
Sending CW can be learned and should be learned as you learn to copy it. Most people find sending a lot easier to master than copying. But then again, there are also a lot of people who send lousy!
First, go out and buy a Morse code key and code practice oscillator. They come as one unit, or separately, and are even available with the oscillator in kit form. Make, model and price are really unimportant. There are adequate units available at various stores and many other places that deal with communications electronics.
Adjust the key so that there is space enough for a sheet of bond paper to pass easily between the contacts, and the spring tension should be adjusted so that pushing down the key is not difficult, but merely firm and sufficient to raise the key back up without you feeling as if you must pull it up.
Remember to send much, much more slowly than the characters you have been practicing copying. Send slowly (around 5 or 6 WPM) and send rhythmically.
All code characters have a distinct rhythm. Listen to the perfect machine-generated code on a practice CD and emulate the sound. Listen to the sound of a letter and send it so that it sounds exactly the same, only much slower. It should sound almost musical. If it sounds choppy or uneven, you are sending wrong.
Take, for instance, the letter “L.” It is sent didahdidit. There should be a mental accent on the dah so that it sounds like the rhythm of a cantering horse.
When sending, the proper ratio of dit length to dah length is one to three. When learning to send, exaggerate this ratio because, for some reason, beginners tend to send dits and dahs of nearly equal length. So, send the dah a little longer than you think necessary and the dit a little shorter.
When learning to copy, most people complain that they can’t tell the dits from the dahs on their practice CDs. Some even want to return the CDs as defective. There is nothing wrong with the CDs, folks, it’s your ear.
There is nothing you can do to remedy this but practice. You aren’t defective either, it is just that your brain needs to learn to distinguish the two sounds, and it does this on a nonconscious level, so relax and just keep practicing. It’ll come, and it’ll come without any additional effort on your part, automatically. You’ll be amazed.
If you are really interested in becoming proficient in communicating in CW, as opposed to classroom competence, I urge you to get your Amateur Radio Operators License. Hamming offers the easiest way to get really good at Morse, and learn a thing or two about electronics and operating procedures as well.
Recommended reading: HAM Radio – A Critical Piece Of Equipment For Survival Communications
Even casual conversations on CW will train your brain’s “filter” to copy under conditions you will not find on a practice CD. Static, fading, interference, and such. One interesting type of interference you’ll come across is an extremely loud, staccato, rapping noise that changes loudness, pulse pattern, and radiofrequency at a rapid rate. It has justly earned the nickname the “Russian Woodpecker” because of its origin and sound.
It was a Soviet over-the-horizon backscatter radar system. It was a huge pain in the butt, and it won’t be found on any practice CDs. It was also a violation of international treaties by the Russians, but then what else is new.
Hams also have organized networks on which Hams transmit radio-telegrams free, for the general public. Usually, these are casual greetings and messages, but during emergencies like floods, tornados, airplane crashes, and the like, when normal communications break down, the messages Hams pass along are often of life-saving importance.
This kind of emergency work is the heart and soul of Ham radio and should be recognized by survivalists as a training asset too good to pass up. Hams even have a once a year, week-end long contest in which tens of thousands of them practice operating under emergency conditions in which normal power, shelter, and other facilities are no longer available.
This kind of survivalist preparation and practice has been going on for 50 or 60 years! And it does take a lot of preparation and practice to be effective: many of them are very good at it. You and your family or survivalist group can certainly practice with code practice oscillators, sending messages to each other, or with signal lights or flags… and I do urge you to do so, but, if you really want to learn emergency communications, learn from the experts.
Become a Ham, and participate in traffic (message handling) nets and disaster communications groups. The American Radio Relay League can give you all the information you need to learn about Amateur Radio and emergency communications. There are local groups all over the country for you to join if you decide that this is for you. The League maintains a file of free volunteer instructors. Write to them, and they’ll be happy to let you know which one is closest to you and how to get in touch.
Patience and Tolerance when learning Morse code
I guess the most important thing I can say about learning and using Morse code is that it requires patience and self-tolerance. Some people have told me that they were incapable of learning code… they’d tried, and just couldn’t. Then I taught them. It was no miracle on my part, but rather it was a matter of reassuring them that everybody has difficulty mastering Morse.
It’s like any other skill of this type, it requires practice and a willingness to make mistakes and keep trying. Simple practice is about 90 percent of mastering this skill, not making self-defeating mistakes in technique makes up the other 10 percent, and I hope this article has been some help with that.
My experience and study have shown me that knowledge and proficiency in Morse code has saved many lives in war and in natural disasters. Your mastery of this communication skill could make just as big a contribution to your survival.