Learning Code

Discussion in 'Straight Keys - CW Enthusiasts' started by N4QFY, Apr 11, 2016.

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  1. N2EY

    N2EY Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    I guess it's time for my "12 tips" piece again.....

    Here it is:


    Way back in the 1960s it took me about two months to go from zero to about 7 wpm. I did it by listening to other hams on the air - no tapes, records or computer. There are better ways now and you can probably get to 5 wpm or so in a month to 6 weeks, if you practice every day.

    In a few months after getting my Novice I was ready for 13 wpm, and in about a year, 20 wpm. And that was just the beginning.

    Dr. George Sheehan frequently said that "Each of us is an experiment of one". He meant that while there are general rules to learning new things, each of us has to experiment to find out what works best for him or her. For most things, there is no single "best" way for everyone. This is particularly true when it comes to learning skills.

    That said, here are 12 tips to learning Morse Code:

    1) It used to be that there were two main reasons for radio amateurs to learn Morse Code. The first was to actually use it on the air, while the second was to pass the license tests. The second reason has disappeared in the USA and several other countries.

    So it's important to understand what your goal really is: to become an Amateur Radio Operator who is skilled in Morse Code. That means learning a set of skills, not just the one or two skills needed to pass a one-time test.

    That skillset cannot be learned by reading a book, watching a video, using other modes to talk about them on the air, or participating in online forums. While those things help, they are not the core. The needed skillset can only be learned by doing, and it takes time, practice, and an active involvement on your part. This is what makes learning skills so different from "book learning" - and why some folks find it so hard to learn skills.

    2) Set up a place to study Morse Code. This doesn't mean it's the only place you study code, just that it's optimized for learning it. A good solid desk or table with no distractions, lots of room to write, good lighting, and a good chair. Source(s) of code (computer, HF receiver, tapes, CDs, etc.), key and oscillator. Headphones are a good idea. I recommend starting out with a straight key, you may decide to go straight to paddles and a keyer. Regardless of what key you decide to use, it needs a good solid base and needs to be adjusted properly.

    3) Avoid gimmicks such as CodeQuick and printed charts with dots and dashes on them. Often such systems were designed to help a person learn just enough code to pass the 5 wpm test, but resulted in bad habits that had to be unlearned for practical operating. Morse Code as used on radio is sounds, not printing on a chart or little phrases. They may work for some people, but, in general, I advise against them.

    Learning to receive consists of nothing more than learning to associate a certain sound pattern with a certain letter or number. There are only about 41 of them to learn. If you could learn to recognize 41 words in a foreign language, you can almost certainly learn Morse Code.

    4) Set aside at least a half-hour EVERY DAY for code practice. Can be a couple of ten- or fifteen minute sessions, but they should add up to at least a half hour every day. That means every single day, not just weekends, holidays, etc. If you can do more than a half-hour some days, great! Do it! But more on one day does not give you an excuse to miss the next day.

    Yes, you may miss a day here and there, because life happens. The trick is to keep such missed days to the absolute minimum.

    5) If you can enlist a buddy to learn the code with, or find a class, do it! But do NOT use the class or the buddy as an excuse to miss practice or slow down your learning. The buddy and/or class are a supplement to your study, not the center of it.

    6) Download and read "The Art And Skill of Radiotelegraphy". It's free and available from several websites. “Zen and the Art of Radiotelegraphy” is also good. Search out other code-oriented websites, articles, etc. and read what they have to say. But always remember they're not a substitute for practice.

    7) Practice both sending and receiving each and every day. Most of your practice time should be spent receiving, but the two help each other. Practice receiving by writing it down and by copying "in your head". I find a pencil and block printing works best for me.

    8) A combination of the Koch method and Farnsworth spacing is probably optimum for most people. Read up on them, understand and use them – but remember they are tools, not magic. They can make learning the code easier but they will not make it automatic.

    9) Discontinue ANYTHING that impairs your ability to concentrate, focus, and learn new stuff. Only doctor-prescribed medications are exempt from this rule; beer is not exempt. Eat right, get enough sleep and enough physical exercise.

    10) Put away your microphones, stay off the voice radios - all of them. Besides the automated Morse Code generators, listen to hams actually using code on the air. Copy down what they send. Have Morse Code playing in the background while you do other things (but don’t count that as practice time). Learn how hams actually use code. When you get to the point where you can send and receive code, even slowly, get on the air and start making QSOs. Get involved in CW contesting, rag chewing, DX chasing, etc. Remember that you are learning Morse Code to be a Radio Operator, not just to pass a test.

    11) If your HF rig doesn't have a sharp filter (400-500 Hz), get one and install it. Read the manual about how to use the rig on CW; often the default settings are optimized for SSB. Best operation usually requires turning off the AGC, turning the RF gain down and the AF gain up. The S-meter and AGC won't work under those conditions but that's no big loss; they’re not essentials.

    12) Keep at it. There may be times when it seems as if you are making no progress, and times when you make rapid progress. What matters is that you keep practicing every day. Nobodywas born knowing the skills you're trying to learn.


    A bit of work? Sure it is, but well worth it, because all those steps make learning the code easier. And the work is trivial compared to what you can do with the skills once they're learned.

    But a person has to be willing to do what's required. And they have to actually do those things.

    Good luck!

    73 de Jim, N2EY
    KA2CZU likes this.
  2. M6GYU

    M6GYU Ham Member QRZ Page

    Just another thought. Although I can easily read random coded groups of letters, all the punctuation signs, numbers and most of the common accented letters used in european languages, when I became a ham I ended up having to listen for many hours/days? before I was reasonably comfortable at being able to copy CW using common abreviations/procedures used in Ham radio. So listen to hams on the air if you've not already done so.

    As another poster has mentioned, reading machine morse or well sent automatic keyers (bugs etc,) Hand morse is slightly harder to read when you start out. But listen to it on air and you'll find that CW sent by the many 'learn-cw-programmes/apps', much easier too.
  3. M0LEP

    M0LEP Ham Member QRZ Page

    ...and I'd add that my experience is that what's good for one may actually be bad (worse than useless) for another. Evaluate your progress. If you're not making progress, try to figure out why not, and change your approach.
    Somewhere like your shack, where you're actually going to be using the code... ;)
    Yep. Don't get too hung up on avoiding things, though. One of the GB2CW operators I sometimes listen to has a habit of throwing out unusual characters. Sometime the only way to figure out what the !bleep! he's sent is to try to remember the dots and dashes and then go look it up...

    ... and then, if you think it's a character anyone else is ever going to send you, try learning it. (I really wish he'd not bother sending the strange stuff, but he's an ex-maritime OP, and...)
    I found about half an hour was optimal. A whole hour only achieved a small fraction more. I also found that taking one day a week (or so) off actually helped.
    I found that catching a weekly practice broadcast sent by a human operator made all the difference. (I dislike the automatic W1AW broadcasts; they're too long, tedious, boring, flat, and uninspiring.)
    It's OK, I guess. Some folk clearly draw inspiration from it. I found the bits on history and development interesting, but got very little from the bits about actual operating.
    Yeah, I fell for the "Learn to receive before you even try sending" hype. Another mistake of mine...
    Farnsworth spacing certainly helped me, but Koch was one of those things that was actually bad for my Morse learning. Trouble is, it took me two years to realise just how bad it was for me. Whatever method you use, evaluate your progress!
    Aye. Track your progress. See how you're improving. If you're not improving...
    The single most helpful thing I found was a mixed-mode Morse practice broadcast (with a passage sent in Morse, and then read back), after which the broadcaster took voice call-back from folk who'd been listening. It's the closest I've had to a Morse class, and it would not have been possible without a microphone...
    Aye, a good CW rig helps a lot.
    ... even when it seems you're not merely at the bottom of the class, but that everybody else is streets or years ahead of you...
  4. AA4OO

    AA4OO XML Subscriber QRZ Page

    Keep at it a little every day... I started my CW journey in July of 2015. I have and continue to use a number of online tools. I'm no speed demon but I make at least a couple CW QSOs every day. Bit by bit my copy improves.

    Rich, AA4OO
  5. AF4LY

    AF4LY Ham Member QRZ Page

    I learned CW about 20 years ago to get my General and relearned it less than a month ago. Here's what I did: did the Koch ordering and Farnsworth spacing character speed @ 20 and overall @ 7. At the end of the practice, I would send back the last 2-3 blocks that I copied with my keyer. It took me about 2 1/2 weeks to get through all the letters.

    I will say copying from a computer is much, much different than copying on the air, so I spend a lot of practice time listening to code on the air. I have heard G4FON can simulate OTA conditions...which is a more structured way to build your speed. 15 wpm would probably have taken longer to get through and that's where I would recommend to start, because you never get into the habit of counting the dots and dashes.
  6. M0LEP

    M0LEP Ham Member QRZ Page

    Of the ones I've tried (LCWO, JLMC, G4FON, and one or two linux programs) it's the only one that comes anywhere close to matching real OTA CW. I'm told Morse runner isn't too bad (for what it does).

    I started mine in 2010 (though I count the first two years wasted, so perhaps 2012 is a better date to count from). I guess, on a good day, I can just about manage 12wpm, but I doubt I'd pass the test...

    ... Top of the class I ain't.
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2016
  7. KD2RON

    KD2RON Ham Member QRZ Page

    These comments are from a 72 yr old just learning so may only apply to "mature" learners. After learning the letters and figures I found it almost as great a challenge to be able to copy quickly or head copy. Just as your mind cant take time to think about a letter , you don't have time to think about the word being sent. Getting better though with lots of practice. Found Lcwo on line very helpful and Ham Morse app good when internet not available. Remember there are always beginners like me on the old Novice 40m band looking for others like themselves.
  8. KI4ODO

    KI4ODO XML Subscriber QRZ Page

    I discovered one great thing about increasing one's speed. Matter of fact it happened last night. On a Friday night when the XYL is having dinner with her mother (girl's night) and I have a great evening for shack time,,,, wait until AFTER I make all the CW contacts I want to open a cold beer. Wait till after,,,who'da thunk it? My copy speed went up 10 wpm in one evening :D
  9. KI5WW

    KI5WW Ham Member QRZ Page

    That is my favorite one of the bunch. But all are very good.
  10. N4QFY

    N4QFY Ham Member QRZ Page

    My radio has a CW button. It sounds pretty good when I can find active stations.

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