How to Learn Morse Code

Morse code tree


The Morse Code was developed by Samuel F.B. Morse in 1844. Even after more than
160 years, it is still used today, especially by amateur radio operators. The
code can be sent quickly over the telegraph, and is also useful for emergency
signaling (SOS) with a radio, mirror, or flashlight, and even for people with
severe disabilities to communicate. In order to master Morse code, however, you
need to approach it like a new language.

Step 1

Listen carefully to slow morse code recordings. What you’re listening for is a
combination of dots and dashes (also referred to as dits and dahs). A dit is a
short beep, while a dah is a longer beep (three times longer). Every letter is
separated by a short pause, and every word is separated by a longer pause (three
times longer).

  • You can search or shop for practice recordings, or use a shortwave receiver to
    listen to the real thing. Free and inexpensive Morse training software is
    available and usually better than the recordings, it can be set to change the
    text randomly so it never gets “stale” and you can choose whatever learning
    method works best for you. Never count dots and dashes, learn the sound of the
    letter. If you are using Farnsworth, you set the spacing between letters slower
    than the letter speed. Choose a letter speed a bit above your target code speed
    and never lower the letter speed, only the letter spacing. This is the way to
    learn Morse as a language, 15-25 words per minute or more. The following methods
    are best used when you have no intention of using Morse above 5 words per minute,
    they will require you to un learn the bad habits and start over.

Step 2

Refer to a copy of the Morse Code alphabet (as seen at the bottom of the page).
You can use a basic chart such as the one shown at right (click to enlarge), or
you can use a more advanced chart which includes punctuation, abbreviated phrases,
prosigns and Q Codes.1 Match up what you heard to the letters in the alphabet.
What does it say? Were you correct?

Some people find it easier to learn by writing down the letter with dots/periods
and dashes, and comparing it to a chart such as the one shown; others say this
creates an additional step that will only slow you down in learning Morse code.
Do whatever feels more comfortable for you. If you choose to avoid interpreting
written dots and dashes, you can use a pronunciation chart which lists the sounds
of the Morse Code signals, as if you were hearing them, rather than the dash and
dot symbols.2

Step 3

Sound it out. Practice translating basic words and sentences into Morse code. In
the beginning, you can write it down, then sound it out, but eventually you’ll
need to go straight to sounding it out. For example, the word “cat”. Write it down:

-.-.   .-   -

then transmit the word (you can use the buttons on a mobile phone, or beep
vocally – the latter will probably help your mind pick up the code faster). To
pronounce morse code, dit is pronounced di with a short i sound and a silent t.
Dah is pronounced with a short a sound. So cat is pronounced dah-di-dah-di di-dah
dah. Once you feel comfortable with that, pick up a children’s book and try to
transmit the content in Morse code without writing anything down. Record yourself
and play it back later to see if you were correct.

  • Be conscious of your spacing. Each letter needs to be separated by a space
    that’s the same duration as a dah (three times the duration of a dit). Each word
    needs to be separated by a space that lasts about seven times the duration of a
    dit. The better your spacing, the easier your code will be to understand.

Step 4

Memorize the easiest letters first.3 A single dah is a “T” and a single dit is
an “E”. Next, a dah-dah is an “M” and a dit-dit is an “I”. Memorize the letters
for 3 and 4 dits and dahs in a row. Once you’ve got those down, start memorizing
the combinations: dit-dah, dit-dah-dah, dit-dah-dah-dah, and so on. Leave the more
complex combinations for last. Fortunately, this includes some less commonly used
letters (like Q, Y, X, and V) so when you get to this point, focus on the more
commonly used letters first. Notice how E and T have the shortest symbols, and
how K, Z, Q, and X have long symbols.

Step 5

Make associations. For every letter, think of a memorable “sound alike”. Here’s
an example: The letter “C” is dah-dit-dah-dit (long short long short). Can you
think of a word that starts with that letter, and sounds like the Morse
pronunciation? How about catastrophic, which has an emphasis on the first and
third syllable, and begins with a “c”? Or how about dah-dit, which is Morse code
for “N”? How about nanny? This will be harder for words that end in several “dahs”
in a row, since many words in the English language alternate emphasis between
syllables, and usually do not end with an emphasis, but you could use sentences,
too. There are also existing Morse code mnemonics that have been around for many
years; you might be able to find them online, or purchase them.4

  • If you’re a music lover, you can try associating Morse code pronunciations with
    tunes or melodies that are familiar with you. For example, the distinctive
    beginning of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is short-short-short-long, or dit-dit-dit-dah,
    which is the letter “V”, the roman numeral for “5” (as in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony),
    and is rather appropriate for such a “victorious” tune, don’t you think? During
    WW2, BBC broadcasters used this four-note melody to start off its radio broadcasts
    because of its association with the word “victory”! 5

Step 6

Have fun with it. Want to get your friends into it? Learn how to blink code. That
way, you can give an SOS blink when your friend just introduced you to a rather
unpleasant blind date, for instance. Use written Morse code to write secret notes,
or keep a diary in Morse, or tell dirty jokes without anyone knowing. Give someone
a Morse code greeting card. Say “I love you” in Morse code (how romantic!).
Whatever floats your boat, find a way to do it in Morse code, and you’ll learn
it much faster.