Learning Morse Code The Ludwig Koch Way

Most countries have dropped the requirement for learning Morse code to become a ham radio operator. Because of that, you might think Morse code is dead. But it isn’t. Some people like the nostalgia. Some like that you can build simple equipment to send and receive Morse code. Others like that Morse code is much more reliable than voice and some older digital modes. Regardless of the reason, many people want to learn Morse code and it is still a part of the ham radio scene. The code has a reputation of being hard to learn, but it turns out that is mostly because people haven’t been taught code in smart ways.

I don’t know if they still do, but some youth organizations used to promote some particularly bad ways to learn the code. The second worse way is to learn “dots and dashes” and many people did learn that way. The very worst way was using an image like the adjacent one to try to map the dots and dashes into letter shapes. This chart dates back to at least 1918 when a Girl Guides handbook printed it.

Even if you are a visual learner, this is a bad idea. The problem is, it is nearly impossible to hear sounds at 20 or 30 words per minute and map them to this visual representation. Another visual method is to use a binary tree where left branches are dots and right branches are dashes.

If you only need to master 5 words per minute to get a merit badge, you might get away with this. But for real use, 5 words a minute is very slow. For example, this sentence would take about 3 minutes to send at that speed. Just that one sentence.

So what are the better ways? Let’s take a look.

Sound It Out

When you hear someone say the word “elephant” you do not (we hope) translate that into individual letters. You might actually hear phonemes, but most people don’t even do that. You just hear a sound that your brain knows means a large grey animal with a trunk. That’s what you want to get to with Morse code. Sounds should just mean letters without having to interpret them.

That leads to what might be the third-worst way to learn and, unfortunately, a way many of us did learn. It is very common — especially in the past — to send Morse code very slowly for beginners. That’s great, but it limits you when you try to go faster.

If you consider the elephant example, it would be like if you were trying to learn English and your coach said “El….uh….phant.” It would be easy to understand her, but harder to understand people speaking normally.

Speed Up to Start: The Farnsworth Method

Today the Farnsworth method — named for Donald Farnsworth — is very common. The idea is to send the code at the target speed you would like to learn, but space it out so the average speed is much slower. For example, your coach might send at 15 words per minute but spaced out so it was really 5 words a minute.

That makes sense. You hear the sound you’ll hear when you are proficient. But you’ll have time to think about it. As you get more proficient, you reduce the gaps until you are at normal spacing.

Another Way

A less common, but very effective way to learn is the Koch method named after a psychologist Ludwig Koch (we think it was the same Koch famous for nature recordings). Like the Farnsworth method, you send characters at the target speed. What’s different is that you send only two characters. When the person copying the code can copy 90% accurately, the coach adds a third character to the mix. You continue with those three characters until the learner is back to 90%. Then a fourth character shows up and the whole process repeats until the learner can copy all characters.

This is surprisingly effective because it naturally makes you pay attention to the sound and not the dots and dashes. Koch was able to teach a class of students to copy code at 12 words per minute in under 14 hours. However, the method wasn’t often used until recently.

Digital Age Unlocks the Path Less Taken

The problem with the Koch method is that it is hard to do with standard ways code was traditionally taught. Records, audio tape, paper tape sending machines (like the Instructograph in the video below), and radio broadcasts don’t have an easy way to provide you practice with the groups of letters you know plus one additional character. It is also difficult to do in large classes because one or two slower learners will hold up the entire class.

So, ideally, you have one instructor for just a few or even one person, or you need a computer that can send Morse code. That’s easy today but it wasn’t always so simple.

Get Learning

If you want to learn the code, or if you want to learn it better than you know it now, the Koch method is pretty simple. If a bunch of students can learn code in 14 hours, you should be able to, as well. Even spending an hour a day, that’s only two weeks.

There are plenty of resources, but one we like is LCWO (Learn CW Online — CW or Continous Wave is ham-speak for Morse code). The site costs nothing and will track your progress. Once you’ve learned it, you can practice text, words, callsigns, and common ham radio exchanges.

Even if you don’t need Morse for a ham license anymore, it does open up new opportunities. If you don’t want to do ham radio, think of all the Arduino projects you could do where the device could signal you with a blinking LED and you could command it with a single switch contact. Not that we’d use a scheme like that to count blackjack cards. We’d never do that. If you don’t want to use the computer and still need a coach, you could try this 1939 code trainer.

41 thoughts on “Learning Morse Code The Ludwig Koch Way

  1. To be fair, the Cub or Scout badge was often “communication” and “Morse” code was one if a few methods, like semaphore. The intent was learning, not really practical use.

    I think I said it before, but fifty years ago I bought a telegraph set (it had a sounder, but couid also buzz or light a small lightbulb) to learn “Morse” code. It was a failure, everyone wanted to send, not receive. And sendung is different from receiving. I didn’t learn the code till almost two years later, with a code record, and access to a Hammarlund SP-600.

  2. I originally learned morse code for professional reasons (merchant marine radio operator) and our first class teacher gave us the instruction “learn these 13 characters by tomorrow or you’re out” – the same instruction was received the following day for the next 13 characters. We ALL (22 of us) managed to recall ALL 26 letters (to write down) in only two days. Actual code receiving took another 6 months to get to 16wpm. That’s what ‘incentive’ is all about.

    Our final exam was at 20wpm and the required pass mark was 100% – that’s the pass MARK! No failure allowed and only one retest if you failed. The exam included code blocks, plain text, numbers and punctuation.

    Even now – some 40+ years later – I can still send/receive code at 48 wpm using a hand key!

    Sadly there isn’t a lot of CW around to listen to any more.

      1. Given he was a merchabpnt marine, I guess he was talking about in general. Forty years ago I knew someone who had “run away to see” after getting the proper license, but it’s been sometime since CW was a requirement, orused. I’m not even sure there are “radiomen” as a skill category.

        Other services used CW too, news services and military. Indeed, commercial CW was often pointed to as a good place for getting your speed up, it was fast and regular, and from written material (so no pauses as someone thinks of what nextt to say).

        Hams are probably the only ones using CW now. That’s a dramatic change.

    1. Respectfully “Sadly there isn’t a lot of CW around to listen to any more”, sound akin to saying I can’t hear anyone talking, so the band must be dead. Many seem to be hesitant to call CQ, see see if they can shake anyone out of their slumber. :)

    2. Take a look at this SDR site: http://www.sdrutah.org/
      He has a few radios setup that you can listen to in a browser. I’ve been listening to the 40 and 80 meter CW bands for a bit and there is still lots of chatting going on. There are some digital modes, so if it sounds like a warbling tone, it’s just somebody chatting high-tech style.

  3. I learned using a computer program sending using the Farnsworth method. Every day I downloaded news articles and had the program send them. I got to 13 WPM reliably. I took the 20 WPM test and wrote down all words after “is” and nothing else, and passed. This allowed me to get the “K6BP” callsign when FCC was just starting to recycle old ones, and you needed an Extra class license and 20 WPM to get that kind of callsign.

    I then founded an international effort to remove the Morse Code requirement for Amateur Radio licenses everywhere. This was successful. We did not oppose using code on the air, we just felt it was not necessary on the test. Surprisingly, the effect has been that more people use code on the air today than when it was on the test. Everyone won.

    At Hamcation a few weeks ago, I bought a paddle. Now that there is no code requirement and the fight is long over, I might actually get back into it.

    1. Thank you for the work you did. CW is something I intend to get into at some point, but my main interest is in QRP digital, which is a wonderful little sub-hobby right inside the rest of ham radio. Right now I’m a general, and I’ve studied for and passed the Extra test exams, but life has been getting in the way of getting the upgrade. I’m just glad I don’t have to get up to 20wpm CW to pass! Again, thanks and 73 de W7RLF

    2. I dunno. I got my novice license at 13 and had to pass the code test. Sometimes when I listen to modern hams rag chew like a bunch of CB’ers, cursing, being rude, and causing QRM I think maybe we lowered the bar a little too far.

        1. Jim, certainly learning code does not prohibit cursing. lol. My point is that the effort required to go through learning code usually means the operator has some serious time invested in getting his/her ticket. This loosely translates to an operator who is cognizant they enjoy a unique privilege when using the ham bands, and hopefully, they act in their own self-interest to protect that privilege by being a courteous operator (the very same reason you probably don’t curse like a sailor when on the air). It’s not full proof, but consider the alternative end of the spectrum. Take away _all_ licensing requirements and watch what happens (*cough* CB *cough*). I think it’s great that Amateur radio is more available for new Hams than ever before, but at the same time, I think it’s human nature to lend a higher degree of respect to those things you had to earn vs. those things that were easy to do. It’s just my opinion. I might be dead wrong. :-)

        2. Personally, my observation has been, going by the call signs used by those creating creating QRM (man made interference) date back to long before the volunteer exiner system, except for novice, and the conditional licenses. That combined with their general ignorance of electronics, and radios, tells me the problem, isn’t on of too low of standards, but every group has it’s jackasses. Sure some may bootleg call signs, but that is generally ferreted out, by a simple phone call.

          CONDITIONAL; licenses; amateurs where allowed to administer exams higher than the novice. Called conditional, because of the condition, that those having such a license are subject to being called in to take the exam in front of a FCC examiner.

  4. Forget all the things that call for reasoning and memorization: it doesn’t work!

    Learning Morse code is creating a REFLEX CONDITIONED by the sound of the code.

    The recognition of the global sound of a character, triggers either the automatic writing of this character on the paper, or the concatenation of that character in the memory.

    With a lot of experience, it is the words that we recognize and no longer the individual letters?

    That works exactly like spoken language!

  5. I’ve never had an interest in learning Morse code before, mostly because those dots-and-dashes looked way too difficult to memorize, but that last method of learning sounds so natural that giving it a try might be fun.

    1. When I got licensed I had no interest in CW either. However, I soon got into building QRP rigs. Since CW designs were far more approachable, I learned morse to be able to use what I built. Turns out I really enjoy it and came to crave the simplicity of a key, a knob, and some headphones.

  6. Fairly recently some posted to a Kansas specific amatuer radio Facebook group. I simply replied that the Gorn West tapes sold by Radio Shack at the time work me, and others swore by the Jerry Zilliak traing material. I also mention that’s not recommend to try to re memorize the characters visually, try to count the elements of each character sent, and transcribe then to them to a character. Most likely a troll responded to my comment suggesting people learn the characters visually. To that I respond with the US military didn’t agree with that when they needed to crank out a lot of radio operators, and there is video on YouTube to that point. Where I knew a peeing contest would ensue, that was my last post on that thread. Good lucktyo anyone traying to learn Morse code.

      1. No problem. Everyone was familiar with SOS, . . . – – – . . . , so those letters were easy to remember. The letters weren’t all real words, just memory gimmicks. J was ajjj. F was oofi goofy f. Whatever, I still remember them after 65 years.

    1. My trick was to write the letters (most of them, at least) in a script that followed the sounds…long strokes for dashes, turns for dots. I sort of made up my own way of writing. Made it a bit tough for the person trying to tell whether I had 1 minute of clear copy, though!

      My favourite memory of Morse, is when I was sitting in the club shack, chewing the fat with one of our members who had been a radio operator on merchant ships during WWII…and survived. We were talking, someone else was tuning around the HF bands on the club station. All of a sudden, Ed said “He’s in [placename]”. We all looked at him weirdly, then he explained that he had been listening to the Morse from the radio while talking to us at the same time. Threw me for a loop, that did. I can’t even type and talk at the same time.

      RIP Ed, W1NXC

  7. I did similar to someone above. I downloaded some books in text format, and used a program to turn them into code, with Farnsworth timing. The hardest thing I personally had to get over was trying to autocomplete in my brain, as that will screw you up badly more often than not. It is surprisingly hard to just write letters down and not try and finish the word. The other thing that is hard to get over is to just let mistakes slide. I was prone to transposing a few letters, F’s and L’s for some reason I forget which is which. The thing is I know this is a common mistake I make, and if you worry about it while doing the transcription at higher WPM’s, you will loose the next 6 things you probably could have got if you just wrote one or the other down and mentally moved on to the next letter. This thing with the tests is they give you as much time as you like after the code is sent to deal with it, so if you know the common mistakes you make, when put in context, you can usually get them all resolved, where if you fret over them, you loose the ground required to put them in context. You really need to be a simple machine, listen, and write and not think.

    Oddly enough, I get a chuckle out of it when people call code a “perfect” copy, because if humans are involved at both ends, it may not be. Who knows, perhaps the guy sending mixes up F’s and L’s too. In the end if all goes well you get a pretty good rendition of the original, but I would not want to send hexadecimal computer code that way. I suspect the imperfections would definitely rear their ugly heads.

    I could research this on my own, but in the old days of hand sending did anybody ever include a checksum or a CRC or any concept of a line by line /paragraph by paragraph/page by page integrity check?

  8. I’m not saying the “dots and dashes mapped to visual shapes” is a good method, I’m just saying that I came back here about 20 minutes after reading to say I realized I still remember “C” (and probably will forever) because I happened to glance at it in the inset graphic and I see it in my head every time I think of morse code now.

  9. I learned morse code in 7 days. I learned it by sound and thats the only way. If you learn it by dots and dashes and associate that with a letter then the sound your words behind . I learned it back in the 70’s with a radio shack booklet and a cassette tape !

    1. I learnt Morse code as a signalman in the British army, and learnt that it was like music, its a rhythm of sound not a series of dots and dashes our learning speed at that time was 10 words per minute, said to be the slowest for learning it. My speed after 3 years in the army and 30 as a ham, was 25wpm.

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