Head Copying CW

There's more to using Morse Code than Learning Morse Code

It's been about 18 months since I started learning Morse Code in order to use it for making CW contacts in amateur radio.  Learning the code allows you to recognize the letters, numbers and punctuation but it's akin to when you learned your "letters" when you were a child.  Knowing the alphabet is just the first step to "reading".  So it is with learning Morse Code.  

When I started making contacts using CW it was fairly formulaic. I even had my QSOs written out with regard to what I was planning to send and what I expected to hear during each exchange. 

But then my copy and sending speed increased beyond 17-19 words per minute and I could no longer type or write down what I copied fast enough to comprehend and I began to head copy.

Head Copying

Head copying is when you stop transcribing what you hear and listen to it as you would a conversation and only take notes on salient points.  This was a big step for me and it has been a difficult transition.  

Using Morse Code to communicate at speeds faster than it can be written straddles the weird place between hearing and reading.  We learn morse code by its sound but at slower speeds, say below 30wpm what we are "hearing" is letters, not words so we are having to buffer those letters in our head to spell words.  When we "listen" to someone speak we are not hearing them speak letters but complete words, when we "read" our brains are not looking at individual letters but at complete words.  When we hear Morse code at 20-25 wpm we are hearing very slowly pronounced words and it is a new skill that has to be learned.

This skill is necessary for ragchewing.  A ragchew is a long QSO between two amateur radio operators. This is generally what amateur radio operators are doing on the radio when they're not contesting, ...

How to practice for a ragchew

So after you learn the code, how do you learn to use it in a conversation?  

I struggled with copying ragchew QSOs at 20+ words per minute for most the spring and early summer of 2016.  Just listening to QSOs alone wasn't cutting it for me.  During my lunch time at work I began regularly using my CW training application on my phone to send the top 500 words at 25wpm and it has been a big help to me.  

I had to learn the skill of not just recognizing letters but holding what I was hearing in my brain long enough to turn it into a word and just as importantly not to get hung up on a word that I couldn't immediately recognize but let it go and pay attention to the next.  To me, this has been a bigger learning curve than recognizing the alphabet and numbers at speed.

In addition to learning to buffer the letters until they form a word I must also keep the slowly accumulating set of words in my head until it forms a sentence or makes sense as to what is being communicated.  
THIS IS COMMUNICATION with Morse Code and it is different than anything else we are familiar with so treat it as learning a new skill.

Now if all you are trying to do with CW is contests, you don't need this skill.  You just need to be able to copy a call and whatever designators are sent after it for the contest rules (state abbreviation or a contest number or grid square) and get it copied into your logging program.  But if you want to communicate at speeds above 20wpm you will need this new skill.

Next steps

After you've practiced with machine sent top 100 or top 500 words you'll still need time copying actual QSOs because more often than not, most operators you will communicate with have lousy spacing and run their words together or use so many abbreviations that you'll have to learn to hear the abbreviations as new words.  When I work an operator who runs things together I'll first try to really exaggerate my word spacing during my exchange to give them a hint and if that doesn't work I ask them put more space between their words.  Some will comply, but some folks just don't seem to know how to leave space so I'll catch what I can, politely respond to what I could understand and then move on.

So if you're getting discouraged when you reach a wall of comprehension, try the steps above and with time I think you'll find your comprehension during a ragchew improving and it will take you to a new place in the hobby.

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations... and put extra space between your words!

Richard AA4OO

Update 11/7/2016:

KA8BMA pointed me to a nice reference created by W0XI for the top 100 "Ham Words" used in QSOs... check it out most common ham words
Richard Carpenter, AA4OO, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from North Carolina, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

9 Responses to “Head Copying CW”

  • Mark GØNMY:

    I let my Morse lapse for a while and now I have taken it up again I too am at the difficult head copy stage. I also tend to make assumptions on some words.
    I have listened to a number of stations who’s spacing basically is almost non existent. I find this the most frustrating, and I usually just spin the dial.
    There are some fantastic coders who are a pleasure to listen to.
    I hope maybe one day I can accomplish their skill.
    Thanks for the post Richard 73 Mark

  • Bob KK5R:

    When you put extra space between words or at least give the proper spacing, many good operators appreciate it and compliment you on it.

    With practice, everything improves. The greatest “trick” I learned about writing down a word when that’s all you can do at first is to wait until the next word is being sent before writing the word down. This usually eliminates the guessing that slows the operator down when it is not the letter or word you thought it was before hearing it completely. A three-count between sending words also gives the receiving operator time to know that the word you just sent is complete. These things are beginners’ tricks that prove to be worthwhile and with practice, they can also become habit and improve speed and correct copying and sending. Speed is of no use if the other operator/s have problems communicating with you.

  • Nolan Kienitz - KI5IO:

    Good post Richard. Most appreciated for this ‘old-timer’ who still struggles with “head copy”.

  • Dwight. w4IJY:

    Tried to register only to find out only PayPal is the only card accepted. Disappointed!

  • Francis kg5dkg:

    This is a skill I am working on now!

  • Bill, WG0R:

    Thanks for the post, Richard. It is very helpful. I just completed a CW Academy Level 1 a couple weeks ago, and am able to send (with delays) at 20 WPM, but am also at the head-copy dilemma stage. The Academy is a great course of 2 month’s duration. There are three levels of the course. I have signed up for level 2 in January, but am thinking I might delay until I get through this barrier. (Level 2 works to get one to the 25 WPM point). Level 3 works to get to the 30 WPM point. It seems that your experience is close to my perception/ expectation for working to achieve the 20 WPM head-copy point. I am working on recognizing letters at 20 WPM with instant recognition. I still need up to three repetitions to ID some of the letters. I am also using my IPhone to learn to copy words at 30 WPM (with “dah dit”) to “build” the multi-letter recognition long enough to make common word recognition comfortable.

    73, Bill

  • Carl GW0TQM:

    When I took my cw test, I was disappointed to note the examiner puffing on a lit pipe without asking either of us first. I was musing to myself that some people have a dangerous allergy to nicotine when it dawned on me we were half way through the ‘groups of numbers’ part of the test. I passed. I can’t head copy…. But my right hand can… Apparentkt

  • Alan M7ESI:

    As a 74 year old Limey I have been learning cw for a year. I guess I’ll need another year or 2 to head copy at 30 wpm.
    I believe success is the square root of effort! It took me 4 years to learn to fly and become an instructor, so I’ll keep on keeping on. 73s Alan M7ESI

  • John WA7ZZ:

    I am relearning Morse code. I first learned it 60 years ago in the Army and could copy at 23 wpm. I can see the advantage of head copy, but how does one know that they copied correctly if one is practicing by not writing it down?

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