How to Learn Morse Code for Beginners

How to Learn Morse Code

One of the main goals that every amateur radio operator wishes to achieve is to learn morse code.
This article is aimed at the amateur radio operators that want to learn morse code to fully enjoy this fantastic hobby.
Getting familiar with CW can be very frustrating but also very exciting. Here we want to help you on finding the correct way to approach the challenge of learning the morse code.

Common Morse Code Myths and Misconceptions

There are many misconceptions about learning how to send and receive the morse code, many of which prevented radio amateurs from taking a morse key.

The most common morse code myths and misconceptions:

  • I’m too old to learn the morse code
  • It requires too much time, and I don’t have time.
  • I’ve bad ears, and can’t assimilate the sounds
  • I’m not good at learning new languages

We have seen may operators learning the morse code even if they were not young anymore. learning the code, will require a constant exercise at first, but once achieved, the sound of the code will remain in your head.

Morse code it is not a langauge, it’s a code! Learning is much simpler and faster than learning a new language.

Is Morse Code still used today?

Until a few years ago, Morse Code was a requirement to obtain the ham radio licence. In the US, sending and receiving at five words per minute was the minimum requirement to obtain the Novice licence, and 20 wpm was the required speed for the Extra. Gradually, starting from 1991 morse code requirements has been reduced to 5 wpm for all licences, until the 2007 when the CW requirement was eliminated entirely.
Nowadays learning the morse code, with the sole goal to use it on the air, and not to get the ticket, is an ambitious goal that certainly requires determination and hard work, and it needs much practice to maintain the ears well-trained.
Morse Code Key
Vibroplex Morse Key

Critical Success factors

Acquiring a good proficiency in transmitting morse code requires time and a suitable learning method, but some key success factors can be found in the human factor. We are referring to:
  • Motivation
  • Sharing
Motivation could be determined by the fact that many more contacts can be done by using the morse code.
In fact many dx petitions prefer to operate CW rather SSB because contacts are faster and easier.
Learning CW will allow to take part to the several dedicated contests.
On HF bands DXing, contesting and QRP operations still rely heavily on morse code.
Even on VHF and higher frequencies, you’ll find that exciting activities such as Moonbounce and weak-signal work still require CW.
Sharing the experience with friends, will permit make less boring the constant repetition of exercises, and will help in respecting the commitment made.

General recommendations

phonetic alphabet and code

You will learn that there are several different methods to learn the code, some of them are very popular among hams, like the Farnsworth Method or the Koch method, some other are very different each other and are not proven to be effective for everyone. Some general recommendations however, are always valid and independent of the chosen method.

Learn in steps

Immediate learning of high-speed Morse code is not possible or highly unlikely. You must learn first to recognise the code, distinguish dot and dashes and then discern the grouped sounds, and start practicing the transmission at a low-speed. Then start increasing gradually reception and transmission speed.

Learn from sounds

When you will have learned morse code, each letter have a correspondent sound, done by mixed dot and dashes. Morse Code is a language of sounds.

Repetition and Practice

Repeating exercises is the key to remembering the sounds. The continuous practice of the morse code is the key to increasing the proficiency.

Think in morse code

Even while you drive, walk or watch TV, try to translate morse code, numbers and words. These uncommon exercises will allow your mind to assimilate the code even if do not perform the usual exercises.

The importance of “other codes”

Good morse code operators are generally good operators also in common voice modes.
It’s generally considered important
  • to have a good proficiency of the amateur radio lingo
  • make frequent use of all abbreviations and codes such as BK,SK, AR,CQ DE
  • to know how to conduct a standard amateur radio contact.
 All these formal aspects, in the morse code contacts, have much more relevance than for the SSB contacts.
About abbreviations, the morse code transmission itself, also known as Continuous Wave is abbreviated as CW where morse code dot and dashes elements, get represented by mean of the switching on and off a sinusoidal Carrier Wave.

A matter of method

Learning CW means developing one’s own reflexes in associating sounds and characters.
You can achieve this goal in several ways, but the amateur radio community, since ever, has selected two different methods: The Koch Method and the Farnsworth method.
morse code chart
morse code chart

The Koch Method

Koch’s method was invented by German psychologist Ludwig Koch in the 1930s, and foreseen that you should start learning the code at the desired speed, (in example 20 wpm) by learning two characters only at the very beginning.
The Koch Method provides one proven method for learning the character set with a minimum amount of frustration
When you are confident in receiving these two characters, let’s say when you achieve 90 percent accuracy, you can add another character.
This method is based on building the reflexes in order to associate sounds to characters, and a continuous practice until you get it right.  Copy on paper the characters and grade yourself, and if if you score less than 90 percent, repeat the session and try again.
A suggested sequence for learning morse code using this method could be the following:
K  M  R  S  U  A  P   T  L  O  W  I  .  N  J  E  F  0   Y  ,  V  G  5  / Q  9  Z  H  3  8  B   ?  4  2  7  C  1  D  6  X  <BT>  <SK>  <AR>
The Koch method is a very individual method, since every one of us have a different way to building the reflexes.

The Farnsworth method

Another popular way to learn CW is to start slow and then build up to a higher speed. Unfortunately doing this way, you end up implementing in your mind a sort of  “conversion table lookup”.
While this could be efficient at low speeds, when you progress beyond 10 wpm, the lookup table functionality will become even and even more difficult, and the errors rate will rise up.
With the Farnsworth method, characters are sent at the same speed as at higher speeds, while extra spacing is inserted between characters and words to slow the transmission down, in this way you learn how each character sounds at the target rate.
As you improve your proficiency, the extra space between characters and words is decreased.
In this way you get used in recognising characters at a higher speed, and thus it will be easier to increase the speed later on.
Donald R. Farnsworth W6TTB invented this method in the late 1950s.

Where to start

Most of the CW learning guides, begin the practice by focusing on the reception of a small set of letters, while CW Transmission is generally done in a second time and is kept separated by the reception practice.
If you want to do it alone, and not taking part to a morse code class, you have some options to choose:
In all cases, you will have to write your received messages in a paper sheet and check the results at the end of each session.
listening excercise
CW Exercise – Reception

Concerning the copy of live QSOs is probably the less useful method, since code sent on the air is typically of poor quality and speed may be different and non constant. Moreover you will not have anything to compare the translated morse code.

Concerning websites and software programs to learn morse code, they usually requires to type the characters on the keyboard.
At the beginning, this way will represent an additional obstacle, because in a second or less, you will have to recognize the character and tap the keyboard correctly.

Morse Code Reception

As said before, you can choose audio files, morse code training software or on the air transmissions.
What you will need will be a PC or a smartphone or tab, or an HF receiver
A good proficiency in morse code reception is commonly considered the most difficult thing to achieve, basically because the morse code transmission is frequently disturbed by noise and because the speed of the transmitted code could be too fast for your capabilities.
At the very beginning, it will seem you an obstacle too difficult to overcome, but just after few lessons, you will be less afraid of.

Morse Code Transmission

Transmission, will become easy after having learned the characters. Differently to reception, morse code transmission requires more concentration and attention.
Once all characters will be known and easily recognised, you will be attracted by the possibility to start a real QSO on the air.
We strongly suggest to start answering to calling stations, replying with your own call-sign, passing the signal report and at the end sending the final greetings.
Keep in mind that the speed you will use in your transmission will probably be the speed the other station will use for the reply.

More articles to come

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