Sunday, May 31, 2009

-- --- .-. ... . -.-. --- -.. .

For a while now I've been forcing myself to spend time studying Morse Code. It's no longer required for amateur radio but I felt I needed to have some proficiency in it, and it's something that I've never been able to quite grasp. I've always believed that I simply don't have an "ear" for code; some people can hear it and some can't. Now I think that's probably true for fast code but I believe now that with some effort an "effective speed" of 6 words-per-minute can be achieved.

The method I've been using might seem unusual. I started out by obtaining W6TJP's Code Quick audio CDs. This is an innovative method for learning which teaches you to associate a "sound-alike" and a humorous image with every Morse character; for example when you hear "DAH DAH dit dit DAH DAH" the sound-alike is "Coma, it's a coma" the image is a bear laying in a hospital bed, and thus the character is "comma" (coma). W6TJP claims that this method ties the Morse Code sounds into your brain's language center, and I can believe that it in fact does. For slow code, to pass a basic test or decode repeater IDs it works and it's good enough.

The problem is that it takes time to mentally process the sound-alike, the funny image, and then recognize the character. So there's an upper limit to the "effective speed" you can reach with this method. I should make a note here about the difference between "effective speed" and "character speed". Character speed is a function of how long the dots and dashes last, and their timing relationship to each other. Effective speed is a function of the duration in pauses between characters. You can send Morse Code at a character speed of 18 wpm, but at an effective speed of only 6 wpm; this gives the receiver time to process each character before the next is sent.

Thus once you've mastered the sound-alikes, and you want to increase your effective speed, you need to "unlearn" the sound-alikes and learn to hear the code directly. One method for doing this is called the "Koch Method" where you start out with two characters and after you reach 90% correct copy you add another character. This type of method typically requires a computer to handle generation of the audio and "grading" of what you type in response. The best trainer I've found for this is "Learn CW Online" at The reasons LCWO is so great are (1) it's free and (2) unlike a lot of websites done by hams it's very well designed.

I started out with LCWO doing fairly well; the number of characters was small (the first 4 taught are K, M, U and R) so if I got stuck I knew the right answer had to be one of those. As the lessons progressed I no longer had that luxury; the answer could have been any one of 40 characters (26 letters, 10 digits, plus comma, period, slash, and equals sign). And yet I also found that I was actually more accurate than I thought I would be! As you increase the effective speed you can't dwell on each character; you have to make a choice and move on. If you get stuck you'll likely not only miss the character in question but also the next few after. So in some cases I'll hear a character but won't be sure, and will just type what I think it is. At the end of the session I'll be thinking "Well, I must have really flubbed this one" but in reality I only missed one character out of 40. So clearly there's some kind of subconcious connection being formed here between my ears and my fingers which is bypassing the rational/analytical part of my brain.

I'm not sure I'll ever be one of those 50+ wpm code guys who hears entire Morse Code sentences in his head, but with luck I might be able to actually hold an on-the-air conversation using Morse Code some day.


Scott Hedberg said...

I also used Code Quick - it helped me pass the 5 wpm exam. Now I am also using to help me unlearn Code Quick and get my speed up. Some of those Code Quick sound-a-likes are burned into my brain (Kiss-a-ewe, Why-did-I-die, and A-light-is-lit are very hard, for some reason, to remove from my cerebral cortex). I'm enjoying (for the most part) as it is self-paced and you get immediate feedback as well as a graph on overall progress. I am hoping to use CW as my primary mode during the upcoming field day.

73 Scott AD7MI (

John said...

Good luck with your studies! I've long been intrigued by Morse Code (since I was a kid), but haven't found the nerve/time to try it. I was glad to see the list of resources you reviewed here.

John's Semi-Blog

Paul said...

Hey Dave,

My CW sucks so bad I'm embarrassed to get on the air and call CQ for fear that someone might answer my call! So I'm probably the last person to be giving CW advice, but this is what works for me:

I've found the best way to learn is by a) listening to real stations on the air; and b) by operating in a CW contest. The former because it tunes your ear to fading, static crashes, and QRM that you just don't get when listening to code tapes or computer generated practice sessions; the latter because everyone can hear their own call even at high speed, the exchange is usually "5NN" with a serial number or zone, and the QSO's over so fast that you don't have time to panic! Late in the contest is usually best when things have slowed down and there is less of a pileup to distract you. I've worked a few new ones this way, including C31 in Andorra from my car, using the mic's up/down buttons to key my IC-706!

I also used to load up my iPod with ARRL code practice files and listen to them while driving to and from work. It helped having a Jeep, the road noise was a perfect substitute for QRN/QRM. hi!

Despite all my efforts, however, the code never seems to stick with me. I can get myself to the point where I can copy 13-15 WPM in my head, but if I stop for a few weeks or months, I'm back to 10 WPM or less. I've built CW-only QRP rigs, figuring that will force me to use them and thus build my speed up. Never use them.

If you ever want to practice on-air drop me an email and we'll set up a sked.

Paul WW2PT