CW Geek’s Guide to Having Fun with Morse Code: Learning the Code

My next book is going to be about having fun with CW. Below is the chapter on learning CW. Comments welcome….Dan

Learning CW

Of course, before you can make a CW contact, you are going to have to learn to send and receive Morse Code. This may seem like a daunting task, but remember, thousands of amateur radio operators and millions of commercial operators have learned to send and receive Morse Code. There’s no reason you can’t learn it, too.

The first step in learning Morse Code is simply to get started. You’ll never learn it if you don’t start.

If you have a PC, I suggest starting by downloading the G4FON CW Trainer from There is no charge for the program. The program teaches Morse Code a character at a time, using what is called the Koch Method. The Koch Method teaches you to recognize characters by sound and not by counting the dots and dashes.

If you don’t have a PC, but do have an Apple computer, or a CD player capable of playing MP3 files, you can obtain the K7QO Code Course from FISTS, the International Morse Preservation Society. This course is also free of charge. To get a copy, send an SASE big enough to hold a CD and with enough return postage to Fists, PO Box 47, Hadley MI 48440. [[correct this!]]

Is everbody ‘appy?
These days, everyone seems to be using a cellphone or a tablet. I’ve never used any, so I asked my followers on Twitter what they would recommend. Here’s what they had to say:

  • Matthew Williams @W2MDW – @kb6nu Ham Morse is the most flexible, feature packed. Morse Coach is simple & clean.
  • David Pechey @KD2BMU – @kb6nu I’ve been using Koch Trainer – $0.99 and Morse Code Trainer – Free. @W2MDW told me about Learn CW Online, which I really like.
  • M0TEF – Alistair@M0TEF – @kb6nu I really liked using dah dit on the iPhone for drilling through the alphabet as well as training modes. It has worked for me.
  • Chris Kelling @n1wko – @kb6nu I’m using “dah dit”
  • g4tny @classicfibre – @kb6nu I’ve used ‘morse trainer’ on iphone with some success curing my rustiness ;))
  • Richard Daily@rdaily – @kb6nu Morse-it, Ham Morse, CWSpeed and Codeman are good. Codeman is free.
  • D. Robinson KK4PWE @DRobinson6268 – @kb6nu I second the Dah-Dit app on iPhone. That’s all I’ve ever used and it’s fun.

If you have a favorite, let me know, and I’ll include it in a future edition of this book

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
There’s an old joke that goes something like this: Two tourists are walking around New York City, when they spot someone carrying a music case. Thinking that the musician might know, they ask, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” He replies, “Practice, practice, practice.”

It’s the same way with Morse Code. Once you get one of these apps or courses, you’ll have to practice. Many hams advise newcomers to practice daily, but not to overdo it. Too much practice and you’ll burn out. A good suggestion is to limit yourself to two, fifteen-minute sessions per day.

What some people do is to use idle moments to go over the sounds of Morse Code in their heads. Say that you’re in your car and you notice that the car ahead of you has the license plate number ABC 123. Sound that out in your head (di-dah dah-di-di-dit dah-di-dah-dit di-dah-dah-dah-dah di-di-dah-dah-dah di-di-di-dah-dah). You can use this technique with traffic signs, signs, and billboards.

Another suggestion is to use the “buddy system.” Get a friend or spouse to learn the code with you. If you’re a member of an amateur radio club, ask around and see if there are any other guys who’d like to learn with you. If you can, find an “Elmer” who is an experienced CW operator.

If no one in your club currently operates CW, consider joining the SolidCopyCW mailing list. On this list, you’ll find many CW operators, including yours truly, who are willing and able to help out in any way they can.

Don’t do it
There are several code courses out there that purport to teach you the code by using various catchphrases that sound like the character. For example, one of the courses, uses the catchphrase “dog did it” for the letter D. That sounds very much like dah-di-dit, which is the sound for the letter D.

In general, most Morse Code teachers do not recommend learning the code this way. The reason for this is that while they are effective in learning the sounds of the letters and numbers, they are a hindrance when it comes to improving your code speed. The theory is that translating back and forth from the mnemonic to the actual character slows you down. You want to be able to recognize a character by its sound alone, not some crazy image that gets conjured up in your mind.

Stick with it
Don’t be discouraged if it takes you a while to master the code. Learning the code has a steep learning curve, but if you stick with it, you’ll master it. Also don’t get discouraged if you don’t copy 100%. Just as you don’t need to hear every word when conversing with someone, you don’t need to copy every single character to take part in a QSO.

If you do miss a character, just ignore it and listen for the next one. Don’t let missing a character bog you down. If you like, you can write an underscore or just leave a space to denote a character that you missed, but even that’s not really necessary. When you look over what you’ve written down, you’ll be able to get the gist of what was sent by characters that you did copy correctly.

Learning to send
Learning to receive is by far the hardest part about learning Morse Code. When you start out, you’ll be able to send much faster than you can receive, so learning to send is not a big deal when you’re just starting out.
Even so, I think it’s helpful to practice sending as you’re learning to receive. I’m not a cognitive scientist, but I think that there’s something about thinking about what sounds to make and then using a key to make those sounds that helps solidify that sound in the mind.

To practice your sending, you’ll need a key and some kind of code practice oscillator to produce the sound. As for the key, I usually suggest that even newcomers use a paddle instead of a straight key. I’ll write more about this in the chapter, “Choosing a Key,” but the two biggest reasons that I suggest using a paddle is that you’ll send better code right away with a paddle and using a paddle is easier on the arm and wrist.

To use a paddle, you’ll need to have some kind of keyer. Most modern HF transceivers have built-in keyers and a way to disable the transmitter so you can use that rig as an expensive code practice oscillator. On Icom radios, for example, you set the break-in function to no break-in.

You can also use an external keyer for this. To use the keyer as a code practice oscillator, simply set it so that the internal speaker is enabled and the keying output is disabled, so that you don’t key your transmitter while practicing. You can, of course, also unplug the cable connecting the keyer to your radio.

To get some feedback on how well you’re sending, you could pipe the audio into a program like fldigi or  CW Skimmer. These programs do a decent job of decoding CW, especially with a solid signal, and you can compare what the program receives with what you sent. Another way is to send to your “code buddy.” If he or she can copy what you’re sending, then you know you’re doing a good job.

Ditch the pencil and paper to get faster
When operating Morse Code, there’s always a debate over how fast one should go. Many hams are happy to plod along at 16 – 20 wpm, or sometimes even slower. The FISTS CW Club even uses the slogan, “Accuracy transcends speed.” While there is some truth to this, There’s no reason that you can’t have both accuracy and speed, and I would encourage you to work at operating as fast as you can.

One reason for this is that at somewhere around 25 wpm, operating Morse Code becomes nearly as conversational as phone. And the more conversational a QSO is, the more fun it is for me. I can get beyond signal reports and equipment descriptions and actually learn something about the other operator or the town he or she lives in.

When I got back on the air, I was one of those operators who was stuck somewhere 15 – 16 wpm, but I wasn’t happy about it. Then, I read an article in QST or CQ that the biggest obstacle to getting faster is copying on paper. According to the article, you can’t really write any faster than 20 wpm, and most people can’t even write that fast. So, if you insist on copying down each individual character, then the fastest that you’ll be able to copy is 20 wpm.

That made sense to me, but also I think it’s also a multitasking issue. I don’t know about you, but I have a limited amount of brain power. If I have to use a portion of that brain power to write letters on paper, then it’s brain power that I can’t devote to decoding Morse Code.
After reading that article, I decided that I needed to learn to just copy in my head. I went cold turkey. I put away the pen and the paper, and aside from giving demos to visitors to my shack, I only copy code in my head.
I immediately started getting faster and can now copy at 35+ wpm. I don’t know if the cold turkey method will work for you, but undoubtedly, the key to getting faster is to ditch the pencil and paper and start copying in your head. And remember: practice, practice, practice.

Another way to get faster is to stretch. I don’t mean getting up out of your chair and stretching your arms above your head (although it’s not a bad idea to do that once in a while while operating Morse Code), but rather your code-copying muscles.

You do this by having a contact with someone who’s sending just a little faster than what you’re comfortable copying. With a little bit of concentration, you should be able to copy that operator and next time it will be a little easier.

Another tip for getting faster is to participate in contests. You don’t have to get serious about winning just to participate. Often, I’ll work a contest for a couple of hours just for the fun of it.

How does contesting help you get faster? The key is that in a contest what is sent is very well,-defined. For most contests, only call signs, a signal report (almost always “599”), and a state, ARRL section, or zone number. Because this information is so well-defined, it’s easier to anticipate what is being sent, and you’ll therefore be able to copy it more easily, even if it’s being sent at a speed higher than what you can normally copy. It’s just another way of stretching.

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  1. I looked at a bunch of apps a while back (don’t really need one – just curious). Thought this was one of the better ones.

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