Morse alphabet

Learning Morse Code

Years ago, I passed the Technician Class amateur radio licensing test in the United States — and even got a call sign and everything. It was a fun strange experience going to this aerospace museum in Maryland to take as sort of arcane test administered by old men wearing Navy hats with pictures of what boat they served on in World War II. From what I gathered, I was the only person taking the exam who was not some kind of military contractor. I was just doing it for the heck of it…

Unfortunately, I never had the chance to put my knowledge into practice and ended up losing it rather than building on the foundation like I should have. Now that I live in Canada and am getting settled up here, I thought it would be a good time to revisit this — but it turns out I have to get a separate Canadian license in order to broadcast. Such is life!

In any event, I’m correcting the mistake I made last time: not learning Morse Code, or “CW.” Over the past week, I’ve watched a lot of videos, skimmed through a ton of articles and forum postings and played with a bunch of weird Morse Code apps trying to get a bead on what’s the best way to learn, and I think I have it.

It’s basically this:

RE: Koch or Farnsworth? by AC5E on July 31, 2004
Well, first the “Farnsworth method” is to send the characters at a fairly fast speed but at a slow rate. 13 WPM characters SENT at an 8 WPM rate works very well for both passing the CW test and for those first few hours on the air when key fright is at its worst. 
Second, the “Koch method” is to learn a few characters at a time — I start my students with a group of six characters, the A,N,S,O,1, and the period — sent 13/8 WPM. When the students can recognize and copy A ANN SON. 1 ANSON and so on and so forth better than 95 percent by ear we go to the next group of six characters. 
Remember — the object is to hear a character as a character. It’s not dahdidahdit is er, uh, ah, that’s a C. Practice until you hear the sound and recognize the character. Trying to speed that process up will slow down your learning. Your brain WILL soon learn the knack of hearing a new sound and putting that sound together with a new character. It only SEEMS like it takes forever!

To summarize:

  1. Send individual characters at a high speed, but spaced out from one another. (Farnsworth method)
  2. Learn small groups of characters at a time. (Koch method)
  3. Combine the two methods into a regular study regime — ie, make it a habit.
  4. Don’t bother trying to count dashes and dots. Don’t bother with visual systems. Listen for total character sounds, and learn to recognize them at speed.

Where to learn:

I’m using this site to generate audio of code blocks:

I’m learning at a sending rate of 20wpm with character speed of 15 wpm Farnsworth. It’s totally manageable and you DO mysteriously begin to recognize the sounds — even though initially you absolutely think you won’t.

I’m up to my third character. This method trains initially with characters k -.- and m— — and then adds r .-.. It’s really confusing at first and your brain rebels, but if you stick with it I’m finding rapid improvement.

I’m also finding a dawning ability to sometimes recall chains of character sounds after the fact. Like if I get caught on a letter, or my pen moves too slow, I can often remember two or three characters after that, before I have to go back through and listen again to verify. After a few days of intermittent testing, I’m up to 100% accuracy on k,m,r but with multiple listens to the same audio file, and 100% accuracy on one listen with just k,m. They say that if you learn characters at speed like this, you never have to re-learn them — which can happen if you begin at a slower speed, such as 5WPM which is common.

Final notes:

Including this here for mental reference:

Morse code tree

It’s a tree by which you can conceivably, at lower speeds, count out dots and dashes and arrive at the appropriate character. If you’re learning at speed though, it’s basically useless because you don’t have time — and I’m finding visualizing it really does interfere with building sound pattern recognition in your brain. Still, it’s valuable as a conceptual map to understanding how the sounds are constructed and related to one another.

This kind of thing can be interesting as well:

But really only as a supplement to actually doing the work of listening and transcribing code on a routine basis. It’s not a replacement at all, and you won’t just learn by osmosis.

Have fun!

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