The Koch Method

A common obstacle when mentioning morse code is the general opinion that one must possess some special — almost, and preferably, magical — skills to be able to learn it. That is not so. Anyone can learn it, and quite rapidly too.

There are basically two schools regarding how to learn morse code. The Farnsworth school and the Koch school. Both have their disciples and discussion on which method is the best can get hot sometimes. According to Farnsworth, morse should be learnt with the individual characters sent in some fast speed with a large character spacing in between. This is the traditional approach which has been used almost exclusively over the decades. It is known to have some drawbacks — but, hey, no one said it would be easy in the first place, right?

Wrong. A method developed during the 1930’s by the german psychologist Ludwig Koch overcomes the drawbacks in the Farnsworth method and is now regarded as the fastest route to morse code proficiency. The philosophy of the method is simple: You do not learn morse the same way you study and learn other subjects. Morse code is the translation between a stimulus, a sound in our case, into a reaction, in our case writing down the letter. Given this, there also follows that learning morse code is not a particularily conscious process, it is more like developing reflexes.

When this philosophy is applied the method is as follows. Start off with two characers sent at full speed. Full speed can be anything from 15 to 25 WPM (see below about WPM) — or more… A practical beginner speed is 15 WPM, but in principle there is nothing that dictates this, go ahead with 20 WPM if that is more to your fancy. Write down each character as you identify it. Do this during a five minute session. If you have jotted down the characters with at least 90 percent success rate then throw in one more character and repeat the process. Do this until all characters have been processed. That’s all there is!

A problem with the Farnsworth method is that the extra inter-character spacing allows the process to involve the brain. As in all learning the brain tries hard to sort things out for you. In this case it invents ways to think which character to write down. This is fine at low speeds where the extra spacing exists but becomes a hard obstacle when the speed is increased and the extra spacing disappears. Now you will have to learn everything all over again, this time without the time to think. This crisis appears at around 9 – 11 WPM. The Koch method is a way to short circuit the brain out of the process. And it works too.

While the description above really contains the gist of it all some tricks can make the whole process easier in the long run. Years of experience show that the number one trick is not to write the character as soon, and fast, as you can. Wait until the next character has started, then write the character down. I cannot over emphasize this enough. Write slowly, make sure the writing lags one character — preferably more. This is perhaps harder learn as the code itself but is absolutely necessary to be able to receive faster speeds later on. It also helps to reduce strain in the hand right now.

What’s WPM?

WPM or Words Per Minute is a measure of morse code speed. An average word is regarded as five characters long and the WPM figure quite accurately describes how many English words — on the average — the speed allows per minute of transmission time. In Europe, WPM is not used as much as the plainer gauge of Characters Per Minute, CPM. Conversion between the two is easy when we know that 1 WPM equals 5 CPM. The WPM rate in the course above is 15, meaning 15 times 5 = 75 CPM.

Much of the ham traffic is run at speeds ranging from 8 to 16 WPM (40 – 80 CPM). With some experience the speed increases to around 20 WPM (100 CPM) which is perhaps the most average speed used. There do exist high speed morse telegraphists too, they conversate happily at 30 WPM (150 CPM) — or above!

This takes some extra training though…

A Koch morse code course

This course consists of a very minimum to be able to learn morse code according to Koch. A follow-up with plaintexts and extra materiel concerning actual radio activity is also beneficial.

I developed this course with a piece of excellent software by G4FON you can download freely. It is quite possible to use the G4FON software instead of these files. In fact it might be preferable to do that. The program has plenty of settings that I have not used right now.

Each lesson involves two new characters and consists of two files. The first (labelled 1a, 2a, 3a etc) introduce the individual characters, the second (labelled 1b, 2b, 3b etc) mix the new characters with the old ones. According to Koch the “word” lengths should be random.

However crude, these files do work — they have generated morse skills several times. With different individuals too 🙂

N.B. The actual files are mp3:s and not uploadable to wordpress.

Course notes  (in swedish only – sorry)

Lesson 1 — K M

Lesson 2 — R S

Lesson 3 — A U

Lesson 4 — P T

Lesson 5 — L O

Lesson 6 — W I

Lesson 7 — . N

Lesson 8 — J E

Lesson 9 — F 0 (zero)

Lesson 10 — Y V

Lesson 11 — , G

Lesson 12 — 5 /

Lesson 13 — Q 9

Lesson 14 — Z H

Lesson 15 — 3 8

Lesson 16 — B ?

Lesson 17 — 4 2

Lesson 18 — 7 C

Lesson 19 — 1 D

Lesson 20 — 6 X

Lesson 21 — – (wait) written as a square root sign

Lesson 22 — + = (“+” is end-of-message and “=” is used as a paragraph sparator)

Lesson 23 — Å ~ (“~” is attention)

Lesson 24 — Ä Ö

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