Note: this page is a few years out of date, but the concepts, ideas, and reasoning should remain relevant.
Why Morse Code?
If you have spent even a small amount of time listening to the HF Amateur Radio bands, you’ll hear a lot of Morse Code activity towards the bottom end of them. This is a unique mode in that it’s the only widespread digital mode that can be copied directly by humans (and, to a certain extent, also by computers; it can certainly be generated by computers quite easily.) It also has excellent propagation characteristics, and is far easier to get through poor band conditions than a voice signal is. Although some newer digital modes can rival CW for weak-signal work, they require more equipment to operate and aren’t even close to being as widespread.
A note on terminology: Technically speaking, CW (Continuous Wave) is the emission mode used when transmitting – that is, it describes the type of signal transmitted over the air. Morse Code is how we encode information; it would theoretically be possible to use some other code over CW, though convention is to use Morse.
You will occasionally hear Morse in other modes – for instance, in the automatic IDs from FM repeaters. Most hams understand this difference, but in practical terms, don’t particularly care; “Morse Code” and “CW” are often used interchangeably, and will be here as well.
There are some others that have written much better “why learn” descriptions than I have. Take a look at:
Getting Started & Training
I (John Goerzen KR0L) am learning Morse Code myself, with the aim of being able to operate in CW contests. This type of operation is probably one of the more demanding CW operations.
As I typically do, I spent a good deal of time doing research before embarking on the project. I tried to learn what approaches others have used, and try to take advantage of their experience.
The advice I have generally seen is to learn how to be good at receiving before trying to transmit anything in Morse code.
A Note on Speed
Morse code can be sent at different speeds, generally depending on the skill of the operator. You will see speeds given in Words Per Minute (WPM). Typically WPM values range from 10 to 25, though you may see some as low as 5 or above 30.
A few years ago, people had to be able to show they could copy a CW transmission at 5 WPM in order to get an amateur radio license. There is no longer any Morse requirement in most countries, but as you’ll see, this 5 WPM legacy is still with us, with some unfortunate side-effects.
Speed and Farnsworth Timing
By far the single most common suggestion I saw was: don’t learn Morse Code at speeds of less than 15 WPM. I have seen many, many people say that if you learn at 5 WPM, you will not find that your brain very easily adjusts to working at a more useful speed.
However, when just beginning, your brain won’t be able to recognize Morse characters at a 15 WPM speed. The solution is what’s called Farnsworth timing: the characters can be played at the speed you’ll hear on the air at 15 WPM or above, but then there will be empty space inserted between them to give your brain time to think. As you get better, the space between the characters can be reduced, but the characters themselves sound the same. This is the big difference over learning with slow-speed characters; with that approach, the characters actually sound different to your brain at 20 WPM vs. 5 WPM.
What To Avoid
Unfortunately, there is a great deal of material out there aimed at helping people pass the 5 WPM “code test”. This material was aimed at getting people an amateur radio license. That was a laudable goal, but the unfortunate result is that it is not helpful – and perhaps actually harmful – to the modern amateur that wants to quickly learn effective CW. So, if you see material aimed to help you pass the 5 WPM code test, avoid it. Many training CDs and such programs fall into this category.
Initial Training: By Computer
I suggest using a good computer program to learn Morse Code. After quite a bit of searching, I eventually selected Morse by Ward Cunningham K9OX. If you’ve ever used Wikipedia, you may be interested to note that this is the same Ward Cunningham that invented the wiki.
The reasons I like this program are:
- It encourages learning by an enhanced variant of the Farnsworth method
- It figures out which letters you’re good at, and which ones need more work, and drills you more on the ones that need it more
- It works on just about any computer: Windows, Mac, Linux, and even DOS
How to use Ward’s Morse
Fire it up. Then go to the Morse menu and make sure both Numbers and Symbols are checked; you’ll need these on the air. Then put the cursor in the white box at the bottom and press Enter to start the drill. Ward has some solid suggestions on how to use the program and structure your sessions. Ward writes that he wrote the program to simulate his teacher, and it works well.
In addition to the Farnsworth suggestion, I’ve seen lots of people suggest:
- Avoid mentally counting the dits and dahs. It can be hard to avoid that, particularly with numbers, but the goal is to recognize the characters by sound, not by counting.
- Keep at it – although it might be frustrating at times, it might be surprisingly easy at others.
- Get on the air as soon as you can. Your best bet is to find someone locally, but if not, try your skills on HF and practice as much as possible.
Next Training Steps
As you get better with Ward’s Morse, it is good to start practicing with real words and sounds. For pure letter/number recognition, particularly for contesters, many people recommend Rufz. Windows users can find it at http://www.rufzxp.net/ while Linux users might want to try the very similar program called QRQ.
For more enjoyment, you can listen to various files played at Farnsworth speed. Some programs, such as morse by WH6UR and Eric S. Raymond (Linux only) will generate simulated ragchews for you to practice with, and will drill you on accurate copy. This program can also take arbitrary text files and drill you on those. I enjoy finding a news article on some interesting topic, pasting its text into a file without reading it, and drilling myself on it.
But you don’t need to be that complex. You can find exercise files all over the ‘net. ARRL publishes code practice files. You can download the MP3 audio and the text from them, and also sometimes hear the practice runs over the air from ARRL’s station W1AW – the operating schedule is posted. Make sure that the files you find are done with Farnsworth timing; ARRL’s are.
Of course, you’ll want to get on the air with your Morse Code skills. There are a lot of types of “keys” (devices you use to send Morse Code). Strictly speaking, many PCs can generate Morse code. But there are reasons to avoid that; it will make it harder to learn, and will remove some of the very nice benefits of CW, such as being able to operate with a minimum of equipment. There is a place for that sometimes (such as with contesting) but for now, it’s best to avoid it.
There are many types of keys. Most people suggest starting with an iambic (dual-lever) paddle system. These are the easiest and fastest device commonly available. Several experienced CW hams suggested a Bencher brand iambic paddle, such as their BY-1. You can often find them used at a reasonable price, and they aren’t too bad new at about $125.
You may also need an electronic keyer. Most modern HF rigs have that built in, though, so you can probably get by without it to start with. Experienced CW hams encouraged me to get one, since it is nice to have a dedicated knob to adjust transmission speed. Many also let you store a few frequently-used items in memory and push a button to transmit – handy for calling CQ or contest work. To date, I’m just using the keyer in my TS-2000 and may get that at a later date.
Learning how to transmit takes a bit of skill, too; for that, I highly recommend K7QO’s detailed and useful guide.
You’ll want to find a way to learn how QSOs and exchanges typically work. The ARRL Operating Manual is a good book both as a tutorial and a reference. If you don’t have one, you might want to start with A beginner’s guide to CW or the Ham Radio Ethics and Operating Procedures Manual, both of which are free.
How to Learn Morse Code - the place I heard about Ward Cunningham’s Morse
Super Morse, another morse code program (PC only)
Learn CW Online practice website
Links to this note
Amateur radio is a radio service in which people are allowed and encouraged to build their own radios, antennas, and so forth. It can be used to communicate all around the globe without any intervening infrastructure such as satellites or cables.