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Morse Code Ninja


For beginners:

  • Realize that learning Morse code is not hard. However, it takes diligent practice to become proficient. Think of it as learning to play the piano, but without taking years to become proficient.
  • Learn the characters using the Koch or Farnsworth method. Try both. One approach will work better for you than the other.
  • Learn the characters at a speed of 20wpm. If using the Farnsworth method, increase the spacing between characters and words to start with an overall speed of 10wpm. If you can count the dits and dahs, start at a higher character speed. You may need to go as high as 30wpm.
  • Develop a habit of practicing regularly. More frequent practice for shorter periods is more effective than fewer more extended sessions. Ideally, practice twice a day for 10 to 15 minutes every day.
  • Set a goal for the level of proficiency you want to achieve and write it down. This simple act will improve your chances of accomplishing your goal! Read this for more details.
  • Keep a log of your practice and proficiency. Look back on it when you fail to see all the progress you have made. Persistence pays off.
  • If you get bored with your practice routine, change it up. Keep it fresh and fun. Perhaps practice with a friend.
  • Learn to copy all the characters before learning to send. This will help you listen for the sound pattern of characters instead of counting dits and dahs.
  • If you run into difficulty, seek out the help and advice of an elmer.
  • Use efficient practice methods and techniques. Some methods are not efficient compared to others and will take you longer to reach your goals. Seek out the advice of an elmer if you do not see the progress you expect.
  • Consider learning or improving your proficiency with Morse code by taking a CW Academy class. It is a free online class where you can get personalized guidance.
  • Protect your hearing! Listen to Morse code at the lowest usable volume, especially if using headphones.

  • Don't learn Morse code at 5wpm!
  • Don’t use Morse code sound-alikes! It is tough to let go of this mnemonic as you transition to higher speeds.
  • Don't use a Morse code tree or any other kind of visual representation to learn Morse code.
  • Don't memorize the sequence of dits and dahs for each character. Conscious thinking is slow compared to the unconscious mind's ability to process information. Using a lookup table is difficult, and it will prevent you from going faster than 10 to 13wpm.
  • Avoid repeating characters in your mind. Work to develop Instant Character Recognition.
  • Don't learn to send without continuous evaluation of your timing. Use an elmer or software to monitor your progress. It can be challenging to break bad habits formed early on.
  • Avoid becoming tense and stressed as you practice. If you miss a letter or word, let it go.

So you want to go faster:

Morse code speed vs. proficiencyAt some point in our Morse code journey, we all yearn to copy faster. However, as a reminder, accuracy should always trump speed in the real-world. If you are working at a higher speed than your proficiency or band conditions allow, at best, you may frustrate yourself and the other operator. And at worst, you may fail to communicate successfully.

So what does it take to go faster? In short, it requires learning to operate at a higher proficiency, as shown in the diagram to the right. Knowing this and achieving it are two different things. First, let us cover some theory, and then we will look at approaches to move from one proficiency level to the next.

There are two types of mental processes — conscious and unconscious. The conscious mind is amazing. It allows us to solve complex and difficult problems, such as a calculus homework assignment. It empowers us to engage in abstract, logical, and analytical thinking. Anytime we stop to focus and concentrate, we are almost certainly employing our conscious mind. The downside is how slow it is compared to the unconscious mind!

By comparison, the unconscious mind is lightning fast. It is effortless, automatic, and continuous. It is also where the majority of our information processing takes place. The unconscious mind feeds higher-level information to the conscious mind. For example, in everyday conversation, our unconscious mind does all of the hard work of interpreting phonemes, words, and grammatical structure. It also allows our conscious mind to focus on the meaning of what is being said, and it enables us to understand someone casually talking at 150wpm effortlessly.

The unconscious mind's lightning-fast ability to process information is the key to copying code faster. As a general principle, as the Morse code speed increases, a larger amount of the processing and interpretation must be done by the unconscious mind. And this is directly related to the four levels of Morse code proficiency.

Levels of Morse code proficiency:
1. Conscious decoding of Dits and Dahs
2. Instant Character Recognition
3. Instant Word Recognition
4. Focus on the Meaning

Before we dive into these levels, it is helpful to understand that they are not used exclusively. It is not uncommon to shift back and forth. As an analogy, consider the act of breathing. It is nearly always under the control of the unconscious mind. But by drawing our focus to it, we may control it with our conscious mind. With enough experience, it is possible to shift our Morse code proficiency level to best match the context and speed of the code being copied. For example, a callsign must be copied character by character, while a word can be copied as a complete sound pattern.

So what are the four proficiency levels? And how do they relate to your ability to copy at higher speeds?

1. Conscious decoding of Dits and Dahs:
At this proficiency level, you actively listen to the dits and dahs. Once there is a word or inter-word space, the sequence of dits and dahs is looked up in your conscious mind to identify the character being sent. For example, you might hear Di-Dah-Dit, think Dit - Dah - Dit, and then look up the sequence to identify it as the letter R.

If you find yourself repeating the sound pattern in your mind, you may also be at this level.

At this basic proficiency level, the conscious mind is doing all of the work to decode and interpret the Morse code! And because the conscious mind is so much slower than the unconscious mind, you will be unable to go faster than 10 to 13 words a minute at this level.

If you learn Morse code at 5wpm, using sound-a-likes, memorization charts, or other learning-aids, you will inevitably start your Morse code journey at this proficiency level. This is not advised since you may inevitably get stuck and unable to copy code beyond 13wpm. Some people get stuck for years despite heroic efforts to overcome it! And others transition to higher speeds without much of a problem.

2. Instant Character Recognition:
At this level of proficiency, the unconscious mind is doing the hard work of instantly recognizing each letter as it is sent. The characters are recognized instantly and effortlessly. For example, when you hear di-dah-dit, you think of the letter R. Then the slow, conscious mind follows letter by letter to form words, abbreviations, and callsigns.

To begin learning Morse code with ICR (Instant Character Recognition), you will need to use either the Farnsworth or Koch Method.

The Koch Method is a learning technique named after German psychologist Ludwig Koch. With this method, the full target speed is used, starting with just two letters. Once strings containing those two characters can be copied with 90% accuracy, an additional character is added. This step is repeated until the full character set is mastered.

The Farnsworth method is a learning technique named after Donald R. "Russ" Farnsworth (F6TTB). With this method, you are taught to copy characters at their full and standard speed. However, the spacing is lengthed between characters and words, which gives you time to think about the sound pattern you just heard. Typically students start with a character speed of 20wpm and an effective speed of 10wpm. Like the Koch method, students start with two characters and continue to add characters as soon as they reach 90% accuracy.

The key to mastering ICR with the Koch Method and Farnsworth Method is to ensure that you learn the sound pattern of characters at a speed of at least 20wpm. If you can count the dits and dahs at 20wpm, you will need to learn at a higher speed, probably 25 to 30wpm. Otherwise, it is almost impossible to avoid counting the dits and dahs. And with the Farnsworth method, you will need to use an overall speed that prevents you from repeating the sound pattern in your head. Typically an overall speed of 10wpm is sufficient.

Does it matter how you copy with ICR? Yes! It will affect the maximum speed you can achieve, which may be anywhere from 20 to 30wpm. There are three ways that you can copy Morse code using ICR and the previous proficiency level of Conscious Decoding of Dits and Dahs.

Pencil-Copy: With this method, each letter is written down on paper after being instantly recognized. The speed limit comes down to the fact that people can not write very fast, and it is tiresome. Even using a modified printing style for speed, most people will only sustain 20wpm while putting each letter down on paper.

This method is often employed at slower speeds since it does not require a computer, it is simple to learn, and it alleviates the conscious mind from having to keep track of a sequence of letters to form words and abbreviations. And it frees the conscious mind from keeping track of more higher-level statements and sentences.

Keyboard-Copy: With this method, each letter is typed on a keyboard. Instead of hearing di-dah-dit and thinking of the letter R, you associate the di-dah-dit sound pattern with pressing the letter R on a keyboard.

With keyboard-copy, the unconscious mind is doing even more of the work compared to ICR with pencil-copy. And the interpretation of the meaning often comes from reading the words and abbreviations formed on the screen! This can create an odd sensation when the conscious mind does not know what is being sent until it is read on the screen!

Keyboard-copy is faster than pencil-copy. Our continuous keyboard-copy ability will be half our steady typing speed. For instance, most proficient touch typists can sustain a typing speed of 60wpm, which puts their maximum sustained keyboard-copy speed at 30wpm.

Head-Copy: With this method, nothing is recorded outside of the mind's eye. Using this method with ICR, the unconscious mind does the hard work of instantly recognizing the sound patterns and prompting the conscious mind with each character. The conscious mind must then take on the hard work of following character-by-character to identify words, abbreviations, and then the higher-level meaning of statements and sentences.

If you are head copying, this method is sometimes described as the process of affixing letters on a blank blackboard or ticker-tape in the mind's eye as each letter is received. Then you read what is on the board. Perhaps, this description is more of an analogy than reality for most people.

Using ICR and head copy, most people will max out somewhere between 25 and 30wpm. This maximum speed refers to continuous copying. At higher speeds, it is possible to copy a short burst of characters such as a callsign or serial number, which is often a skill developed to participate in contests at 30 to 40wpm. The world record for unaided callsign copy is 195 wpm!!

I recommend starting your Morse code journey learning to head-copy with ICR. This will allow you to quickly achieve 25 to 30wpm real-world speeds operating on the air, and it will enable you to progress to the next two proficiency levels.

3. Instant Word Recognition:
At this proficiency level, the unconscious mind does most of the hard work. You hear the sound pattern of entire words and abbreviations as a whole, and then you instantly and effortlessly recognize them. While the unconscious mind does a lot of hard work, the conscious mind must keep track of words and the grammatical structure to form meaningful statements and sentences. For example, you hear dah-di-dah-dit dah-dah-di-dah, and think CQ.

This proficiency level often allows users to achieve speeds of 50wpm or greater with enough practice, and it is nearly always done with head-copy. It is interesting to note that this level of proficiency often develops early on with real-world practice. It is common to learn the sound pattern of CQ, 599, 5NN, TEST, and your callsign without trying to learn them as sound patterns, and you can copy them at much higher speeds than anything else.

Gaining proficiency at this level is a matter of building up a vocabulary of sound patterns. Consider the following ABC's of success to master IWR (Instant Word Recognition).

The ABC's of success:
A) Learn the sound pattern of words and abbreviations at or slightly above your maximum ICR speed. Working at that speed will encourage you to focus on the word's entire sound pattern and not follow letter-by-letter. It's analogously to why we learn ICR at a character speed of 20wpm or faster — in that case, we want to avoid focusing on individual dits and dahs.

B) After learning to copy the sound pattern of individual words, strive to copy two and then three words at a time. You may find my n-gram Morse code practice sets useful in developing this skill — Sets of 2 Words, and Sets of 3 Words — and perhaps using them at 30wpm. They are based on the most common two and three-word combinations in the English language. And because they are so common and familiar, it helps ease copying multiple words for the first time. If you copy one of the words, you may easily guess the missing word(s).

Copying multiple words at a time is mostly a matter of giving your conscious mind enough space or mental capacity to take on the challenge of remembering several words at a time.

C) After learning to copy handfuls of words at a time, strive to master copying an entire sentence. I recommend starting with the easiest sentences made up of the most common 100 words in the English language. And then move on to sentences that use larger vocabularies. You may find my practice sets — Sentences from the Top 100 Words, Sentences from the Top 200 Words, and so on — very useful.

Once you have built up a vocabulary of sound patterns at a given speed and understand them in statements and sentences, it is straightforward to increase your maximum copy speed. Diligently and incrementally, practice at ever faster speeds to reach your goal.

As a tip, if you listen to Morse code without headphones, pay close attention to any echo in the room. You may need to make adjustments to minimize echo, which can interfere with clearly hearing Morse code at or above 40wpm.

4. Focus on the Meaning:
At this proficiency level, the unconscious mind is doing all of the hard work! The conscious mind is free to focus on the meaning of what is being sent. This level of proficiency is the nirvana that most aspire to achieve. It is equivalent to listening to someone talk to you in your primary language. It is easy and effortless.

This level of proficiency develops with extensive practice and experience. As the unconscious mind takes on ever greater responsibility, it increasingly frees up the conscious mind to focus on the meaning.

If you would like to watch my talk on Morse code Proficiency vs Speed, feel free to watch the 17-minute YouTube video below.

Dirty Dozen:

If you are running into difficulties learning Morse code, consider the following dirty dozen. They are twelve interrelated problems caused primarily by improper teaching or self-learning techniques coupled with bad habits formed during the learning and proficiency improvement process. Most students encounter one or more of these problems through the course of gaining proficiency. (The credit for this section goes to Jack Ritter, W0UCE, Silent Key. The entire article can be found here.)

1. Anticipating what is being sent: A common problem develops when paper and pencil are used to write or print each letter as it is sent versus learning to copy complete words by their distinct rhythm and sound by ear.

For example, the letters A N Y are written down individually, and the person copying them down is focused on each letter. They have no idea of words or sentence flow. They are not learning to use Morse as a language and are merely copying down individual characters. Then if the next letter to follow ANY is W, the mind's eye anticipates ANYWAY or ANYWHERE. If a different letter than what is expected follows, their focus is diverted. This is the problem with anticipation.

The most efficient way to overcome anticipation is to learn to recognize complete words by their unique sound and rhythm while learning to copy by ear and copying behind. Practice identifying the sound and rhythm of the most common double letter, two and three letter combinations based upon the frequency of usage in the English language helps to form word sounds.

Common double letter combinations: ll, ee, ss, tt, oo, mm, ff, pp, rr ,nn, cc, dd - The thirty most frequent two-letter combinations comprise one third of all letter usage: th, he, in, er, an, re, on, en, at, es, ed, te, ti, or, st, ar, nd, to, nt, is, of, it, al, as, ha, ng, co, se, me, de - The most common three-letter combinations are: the, and, tio, ati, for, tha, ter, res, ere, con, ted, com, hat, ent, ion, nde, has, ing

2. Attention loss, lack of accuracy: Attention loss is often related to Problem 10 during the learning phase and often causes frustration. Practice sessions should not exceed thirty minutes in duration. Break up practice sessions in ten or fifteen-minute increments. And practice thirty minutes a day, seven days a week.

Lack of accuracy is related to Problems 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 10. There is no substitute or better way to learn and improve proficiency than learning to copy by ear and only take notes versus putting individual characters on paper. Practices learning the sound of short words then progress to short phrases such as my dog. Then add a follow on word to start building phrases and sentences. Common QSO exchanges help build confidence to get on the air.

3. Counting Dits and Dahs: Learning Morse code by counting Dits and Dahs is a terrible habit that is difficult to break. Counting is typically caused by learning Morse at 5 or 10 words per minute character speed. While some instructors endorse using the Farnsworth method, adding extra space between characters often leads to unintentional counting. And a long delay can allow a student to replay the sound pattern in their head. (Counting is directly related to Problems 7, 8, 9, and 12.)

Consider starting with a 20wpm character speed with a bit of extra space between short words. For example, TEA followed by EAT. Then progress to three-word phrases. Eliminate extra spaces between words as quickly as possible to learn and use Morse with normal speed and spacing. Why teach or learn at 5 or 10 wpm when it just as easy to learn at 20wpm.

4. Dit and Dah Transposition: Transposition is primarily related to learning at slow character speed and tone frequency being either too low or too high for an individual’s hearing frequency range. The most common character reversals or transposition are: er-re, es-se, an-na, it-ti, on-no, en-ne, ot-to, ed-de, st-ts, at-ta, ar-ra, in-ni.

To overcome the problem of transposition, practice copying and sending the numbers 1 through 10.

5. Inability to break old habits: The obvious answer to overcoming this problem is not to develop bad habits in the first place! Bad habits developed in the early learning stage are the most difficult to overcome.

The key to breaking old habits is to focus on exercises, methods, and techniques that help overcome or break specific old habits. The first step is to determine what bad habits individuals have and make a list. Then focus on overcoming the worst bad habit or habits first. Develop a plan and follow it.

6. Inability to copy behind: This problem is directly related to Problem 12. Until students or those with experience "break the pencil and toss out the paper" and learn to copy entire words by their distinct sound and rhythm, this problem will automatically become problem 5, 8, 9 and 10. And this problem must be broken to become proficient and use Morse code as a language.

To overcome this problem, set up exercises comprised of short word phrases. Repeat two or three times if necessary and practice retaining phases such as MY RED HAT, HER OLD CAT, BIG BAD BEN, UR RST 599, MY RIG IS A K3.

7. Inability to distinguish spaces and timing: This problem is usually related to learning to copy at slow speed and copying individual letters versus words. Concerning sending, we can tune the bands most any day and hear poorly formed code. This sender is said to have a "bad fist."

While an experienced instructor will not encourage using code readers, new radios such as the Elecraft K-3 can display Morse as it is sent. Students can benefit by using a Morse display actually to see that they are sending with proper character spacing and timing. Watching a display while practicing sending helps overcome spacing and timing issues.

8. Increasing speed: This problem concerns copying and is directly related to every other problem on the Dirty Dozen List. Identify and address each problem individually. This will make increasing speed easier to achieve.

Then if you are still stuck, consider that most everyone reaches a "plateau" or bump in the road where they seem to be stuck at a certain speed. To overcome problems with a given plateau or bump in the road, "jump the bump." For example, if you are stuck at 20wpm, increase the speed to 21 or 22wpm. Increasing the speed by even one or two words per minute is the best way to increase receiving speed proficiency.

9. Lack of confidence: This problem is usually related to "getting on the air" and making QSOs. One way to gain confidence is to have QSOs with yourself. Use a code practice oscillator or key the sidetone on a transceiver without going on air. Make up a list of QSO exchanges using different call signs, names, and QTH, and then use it to practice with yourself.

Even if contesting is not something an individual wants to do, they are excellent confidence builders as the exchanges are short (except for the Sweepstakes) and there are plenty of state QSO parties to take part in. Practice makes perfect.

10. Mental fatigue: This problem is common with many activities, and practicing Morse code is no different. Too much too often is not productive. Don’t practice when you are tired or just after coming home from a hard day at work. Consider practicing when relaxed, early in the morning when you are fresh, or whenever you have a genuine desire to practice. The latter being the best time. Contest or Radio Sport participants are well aware of what a toll fatigue can do to their performance. Don’t overdo it.

11. Memorization versus hearing words: This problem is directly related to problems 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7. Until individuals develop the ability to recognize complete words by their sound and rhythm, copying behind, and use Morse as a language, this problem will remain on their bad habit list. To overcome this problem practice copying by ear and copying behind.

12. Writing or typing each letter as it is heard: This problem is the significant obstacle standing in the way of becoming proficient in Morse code. It is our worst enemy and by all means, the first bad habit to break. Break the pencil and toss out the writing pad to learn to copy by ear and copy behind. It should be the number one priority for every beginner or anyone with the desire to improve their skill in using Morse code. Learn to use it as a language; this is a rule of thumb to live by.