Learning the Code – by Phil Parkman G3MGQ

Learning the Code

Summary
Why learn Morse – it’s fun, a real amateur mode & can be read when SSB wouldn’t.
What it takes:  Dedication, 15-20 minutes twice a day for 2-4 months. Practice makes perfect!
It’s audio, not visual, so “hear” the complete character as dit’s & dah’s, don’t think dots & dashes.
How: Computer training programmes & other aids. Listen on the bands & use QRS practice nets.
Accuracy is far more important than speed when sending, and don’t send faster than you can read.

Why learn Morse
We are all told how Morse gets through when SSB can’t, and a moment’s listening at the bottom of any HF band will confirm that you can hear Morse right down in the noise when the S-meter is showing no signal. The CW power is concentrated in about one thirtieth of the SSB bandwidth, so that’s a 15dB gain for a start, and CW is 100% power out with the key down whereas SSB only gives maximum power on speech peaks, giving CW a further advantage of at least a factor of 2; that’s a total of 18dB or 3 S-points! The brain is such a good discriminator able to pick CW out in the noise giving at least factor of two advantage over speech; so that’s another half an S-point.

Budding radio amateurs are introduced to Morse in their Foundation training, but that doesn’t take them to a level where they can expect to operate on the air. The Foundation course is essentially about what you can do and what you must not do; the Morse assessment being to only acquaint them with what good practice involves, particularly the correct rhythm & spacing[1], and what not to do. The best they can expect, without more serious study, is to be able to recognise a repeater’s callsign & its CTCSS letter to confirm they are connecting to the one they want. Except when you are learning on a QRS net, you really need to be competent reading & comfortable sending at least 15 wpm[2] before you venture on the air.  Indeed, even the old 12 wpm Licence test was recognised as only the starting point for getting on the air, but at least it was above the “thinking” threshold (explained below).

How to learn
There are several approaches to reaching that level of competence, all of which require commitment to regular practice if you are not to waste your time; 20 minutes twice a day being far better than an hour once a day. All agree that you need to learn the characters at “full” speed, 20-25 wpm, so that you “hear” the whole sound and not have time to “think” about the dah’s & dit’s. Morse is an aural communication system so don’t be temapted to use visual aids, like the Morse pyramid, the Foundation crib-sheet, or Morse readers like CWGet or in logging programmes like Fldigi or HRD. These allow the brain to use the eyes instead of the ears, introducing another “thinking” delay. You need to train the brain to send what it hears straight to the hand – pencil or keyboard.  How long that takes varies from person to person; those with a musical ear taking a month or less whereas people like me, whose learning style is visual rather than auditory, may take a good bit longer. The key though, like learning any language, is regular practice. The reward is a lasting skill with membership of a respected international fraternity!

Koch or Farnsworth
There are two basic learning methods: Koch, where not only are the characters at the full speed but so are the words, and Farnsworth[3], where the individual characters are at full speed but the spaces between them are extended to give a slower word rate. The Farnsworth method will probably allow you to learn the alphabet, numerals & the prosigns (punctuation & procedural characters) more quickly but then you have to overcome the lack of “thinking” time when the word rate is increased above 10-12 wpm. You have then to train yourself not to dwell on a missed character otherwise you’ll miss the next one or two words as well. With the Koch method, the word rate is at full speed so there’s no thinking time and your brain gets trained to write down the character from the sound without consciously thinking. Learning the whole character set will be slower, but you avoid the “thinking” trap, being able to write down the characters at the full word speed from the beginning. You then have the confidence that already you will be able to read those in a real QSO. With both these methods, when you can read 95% correctly with random 5-character groups from the existing set, you add the next character to the ones you’ve already learnt until eventually you can read the whole set. You can then move on to random callsigns, words and finally complete QSOs and texts.

Learning Aids
There are several free computer programmes on the Internet that provide the training facilities above. Two widely recommend are: G4FON’s Morse trainer[4] and Just Learn Morse[5]. The latter takes keyboard input, so also develops your touch typing which could be useful for computer logging, particularly in contests. With the G4FON tutor, you write down the messages and check it afterwards against the text on the screen. Both provide a record of progress and remember where you’ve got to. As I walked our dog, to learn the code I would listen to a low cost iPhone App, “Dah-dit”, which sends random characters 3 times before announcing it.  To improve my speed, I would try to say the character & its NATO phonetic before the character was first repeated. This App also has a letter-by-letter tutorial and a random word quiz. Unfortunately, the prosigns in all three of these training aids don’t include some of the ones most frequently heard on the air;
e.g. [BT] (dah-di-di-di-dah) = pause, [AR] (di-dah-di-dah-di) = end of message, Oblique or slash [DN] (dah-dit-dit-dah-dit) as in /P.

Another other training aid is VoiceCode, using word association with the sound of the character;
Ones that John G3BDQ gave me & my father, and which I still find easy to read today, are
Leviathan L (di-dah-di-dit) sounds like (Le- vie-ath-on),
Fascination (Fas-in-aye-shon) for F (di-di-dah-dit),
Yokohama (Yoo-k-haa-ma) for Y (dah-di-dah-dah),
and Queen merrily (Queen-mare-ri-lee) for Q (dah-dah-di-dah)
To these I’ve discovered
Exclamation mark! (dah-di-dah-di  dah-dah) sounds like (Charlie ha ha)
I (di-dit) sounds like Rib-it, the Road Runner (you’ve just got to watch TV with your grandchildren!)
H Did-ily-dit (di-di-di-dit) sounds like a train going over points, clearly distinguishing it from the number 5

Because it is so important to just hear the sound of characters, I recommend you start with a character set having 2 dots together; e.g. D, I, U, X, 2, 8 & /, progressively so you get to “hear” that “di–dit” sound. Then do the same with a set with 3 dots; e.g.  B, S, V, 3, 7 & [BT].  Next progressively add those two sets together – don’t skimp on this stage because you are teaching your brain to instinctively distinguish between the sound of “di-di” and “di-di-di”. Finally add H, 4 & 6 until your brain clearly hears the difference between a 3 & 4 dot characters as well and then add the number 5. When you can distinguish between 4 & V, 6 & B, 5 & H at full speed then you know you’re really winning!

Next do the same with dashes, but strongly resist the temptation to count them – just hear the different lengths.  So now start with a new character set, progressively adding characters with 2 consecutive dashes; e g. M, G, W, P, Q, Z & 7. Then add progressively the 3-dash characters; O, J, 8 & 2 and finally the 4-dash characters; 1 & 9 and then zero – again, just hear the different lengths, strongly resisting the temptation to count them .

At this stage, you have trained your brain to recognise just six distinct sounds; di-dit, di-di-dit, di-di-di-dit, dah-dah, dah-dah-dah,  dah-dah-dah-dah-dah and all their combinations. Add E, T, A, N, then some prosigns [AR] (did-dah-did-dah-dit) for End-of-message, punctuation ? [IMI or UD](di-di-dar-dar-di-dit)and / (oblique) (dah-did-di-dah-dit) and you’ve done it! You can now read Morse.

Sending
Opinions are divided whether it is better to practise sending whilst learning the code or wait until you have the sound of all the characters. What everyone is agreed on is that spacing accuracy and rhythm is far more important than speed. Sending as you learn the code can reinforce the sound of the character if keyed at the right speed but, to me, that seems to be a chicken & egg problem, so I came down on the side of learning the code before taking up the key.  Which key to use is the next question; straight or paddle, auto-key or not? Most plump for a straight key which generally are cheaper but a sideswipe single or double paddle key can be less stressful on the wrist, lessening the risk of repetitive strain injury (dead fist or telegrapher’s glass arm). It also leads more easily into the use of a dual-paddle auto-keyer and iambic keying, which make accurate higher speeds easier to achieve and are good for contests. On the other hand, many operators are very comfortable with a straight key and can even be recognised by their distinctive style of sending (their fist).

When showing my Foundation students how to use a straight key, Tony G4KLF advised that the knob should be held between thumb and second finger with the first finger on top of the knob. Dots are then sent with a rhythmic wrist movement with positive up stroke as well as down, not tapping with the first finger alone, and dashes with a forearm movement, the elbow being steady and level with the key with the upper arm and shoulders relaxed. This technique helps to get a steady rhythm and the relative lengths of the dots and dashes in the correct proportion. The most common error is to speed up as you gain confidence, with the dashes getting shorter until they are almost the same length as a dot. Don’t forget to leave the 7-dot space between words as well as the 3-dot space between letters, as that makes your transmission so much more readable.

Conclusion
Learning Morse is not a trivial exercise. Like most worthwhile skills, it takes some dedication and practice to get to a competent level, but is extremely rewarding in the sense of achievement and opportunities for meaningful QSOs and DX on the busy and noisy HF amateur bands. Furthermore, generally you will find that CW operators are far more considerate than those who have not persevered and mastered the art, for example almost invariably reducing their speed to match yours. You will have joined a fraternity of mutual respect. Welcome and have fun!

[1] For example, B (dah-di-di-dit) is quite different to DE (dah-di-dit, dit)

[2] Wpm Words per minute, based on the repeated word PARIS which, with the 3:1 dash/dot length & dot between, the 3-dot space between letters/characters & 7-dot word separation, gives a word length of 50 dots. So the dot time is 100mS at 12wpm. The repeated word MORSE gives the same result.

[3] Named after Russ Farnsworth, W6TTB, who described this method in the 1958, although the method is an instinctive one used from the beginning of telegraphy

[4] http://www.g4fon.net/CW%20Trainer.htm

[5] http://www.justlearnmorsecode.com/

Phil Parkman –  G3MGQ . From the Vital Spark, October 2016.

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