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Techniques for head copying CW QSOs

I got interested in head copying Morse some months ago and have been working with other local amateurs here in south Cumbria who are also learning to head copy. We’re making fair to good progress so far but I would like to hear from SOTA expert head-copiers for their experiences and advice about the effectiveness of different techniques or methods.

My motivation: since I my passed the Morse test about 25 years ago and got my ‘A’ licence (M0ALC) I’ve been transcripting everything to paper. I unconsciously write it down and then quickly look back at what I’ve written. This has limited me to about 20wpm because I can’t write faster [not to mention blunting the pencil lead quickly]. As most of my operating is as a SOTA activator, I would like to get to the point where the only info I’m writing in my little notebook at the summit is what I need for my SOTA log.

I’ve been head copying GB2CW on-air and listening to ARRL’s W1AW slow Morse archives, the Ham Morse app plus the 4-way QRS 2m CW QSOs our head-copying group have from time to time.

Currently, I’m using two methods:

  1. Word sound recognition - you recognize the unique sound of the word, e.g. standard abbreviations CQ, 73, DE, RST and common short words. Most or all of us know some words like this and many more are added over time simply by constantly hearing them.
  2. ‘Blackboard’ or ‘back of the eyelid’ - where you assemble the incoming letters in your mind until you predict the word correctly or have all the letters. For me, most less-common and long words fall into this camp. But I’m finding some have already transferred into the first method.
  3. ‘Phonic copy’ [I am not using this method] - treating the successive letters of a word like a slowly pronounced spoken word. This is described in http://n6ev.com/articles/phonic-method

I’m interested to hear from anyone who has used this method. I can see that it might work with languages like Italian, which [I’m told] is highly phonetic, so in most cases you can predict the pronunciation of the word from the letter sounds. However, with English, we all know, the spelling is a mess, it’s a highly unphonetic language, so I can’t see how this method would work.

I see no alternative, for those words that you haven’t yet memorized as a unique sound [e.g. CQ] than to use method 2.

There may well be other methods. I’m curious to hear from any expert head-copier on how you achieved your skill you now have.

73 Andy

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Hi Andy,
I’ve been head copying since nearly the very begining, as I spent a lot of time making standard ragchewing QSOs, i.e. greetings, report, name, qth, rig, power, antenna, wx, qsl exchange, 73 and good bye.
In my case number 1 for the standard usual exchanges and abbreviations and number 2 for all the rest. Never heard of number 3 method nor ever felt I was head copying that way.
73,

Guru

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Andy: I suspect methods 1 and 2 were what I used many decades ago to be able to do head copy (although I never gave the methods a name). It would have been the years 1971-1975 when I learned code at 5WPM and built myself up to 40WM head copy. In those days there were no apps for that!

I think I listened to ARRL CW bulletins a lot, at 5WPM faster than I was comfortable with. They were technical text bulletins, so yes, you could learn to predict the word and that seemed to me to work best.

But honestly, it was just a lot of practice, practice, practice, pushing at faster CW transmissions and trying to copy and remember. I believe I also used a lot of the North American commercial maritime CW stations as well, but they were only at 20-25WPM. I would hunt down really fast morse transmissions on the radio and try to copy until my head hurt. It worked for me, but I was a lot younger in those days…

You probably know that with software you can set it to transmit a random text file of English language - at least 3-5WPM faster than you’re comfortable with. Then you should start being able to predict as you start to hear the sound of the word unravel. Some software will also send abbreviations/callsigns/ etc…

Good luck!

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I am also very interested in this as I am the same as you. I max at about 22 wpm and write everything down, and review after to see my message. My father copied morse during the war and was stationed in Iceland. I know he was fast and probably used typewriter. Cheers

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When activating I find I can simply log contacts on my tablet (running vk port-a-log) and don’t need to write anything down. Unless I think about it, I can also send a standard report and BK with my right hand, while logging with one finger of my left hand.

When I’m up to speed for copying morse I find I can just listen and the words form themselves. It isn’t something I could teach to another person because I don’t know how it happens. I could only say to do it often and regularly. I used to monitor cw contacts while driving in my car and I would later recall things people said but not really know how the words had been assembled. So I think this is something that your brain can learn to do, but like juggling, it is not something you learn by thinking about every step of the process, you need to learn some base skills and then just use them a lot.

To move from hard copy to head copy, start at a speed you are comfortable with. Try to listen to one word. Skip the next one. Then try to copy the one after that. This way you are listening for words in a context where the actual word does not matter. You don’t do this on a summit when the wind is blowing and your battery is almost flat. You do it on plain text that doesn’t matter and at a place where you are comfortable and relaxed.

I have commented to others that morse is a simple language with only 50 or 60 things to learn, so on the surface it is far simpler than learning a foreign language with grammar, non-standard forms of verbs and plurals, multiple tenses and subjunctive moods to understand. Yet despite that, people do have trouble learning it even if they have a reasonable command of several spoken languages. I still believe it is all just brain training and you have to do new things many times before they become automatic. It isn’t your native language so why would it be easy? New pathways need to be created in your brain and the memory works best when new things are repeated.

Piano teachers refer to muscle memory, which enables a pianist to hit the right keys without looking at them at all. It’s all done in the brain so repetition is the key (pun). Watching the music as you play tends to help your brain build the relationship between a G on the music and the G on the keyboard. Musicians need to practice, practice, practice. They were not born able to play Chopin. Or anything.

When learning typing at age 16 I found some courses recommended using typewriters with blank keytops. Instead of looking at the keys you looked at a diagram showing where the keys were, so your brain was learning that an A is on the home row, far left, little finger. Etc. Then you would practice by typing three perfect lines of “words” like ASH ASH ASH etc and never looking at the keyboard. If you made a mistake you had to type that line again. This was a big incentive to get it right.

For morse, increasing skills usually happens when you build on existing skills. No point launching into 25wpm text and hoping the magic will happen, if you currently copy 10 wpm and get frantic above 12. When practicing to send on a paddle I found it best to send a bit at a comfortable speed, then increase the speed slightly, if it is ok increase again but if not, back the speed back to just above the previously comfortable level. Then tomorrow do it all again and over a number of days, the speed that you struggle at now will be more comfortable then.

Good luck

Andrew VK1DA/VK2UH

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Morse DX worked for me:

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I’ve never heard about method 3 but shall try it.
Mostly I’m using methods 1 and 2 but noticed that with method 2 I’m limited to a word length of about 8-10 letters.
That’s why I started “word training” with LCWO (https://lcwo.net/) some time ago. Started with moderate speed and short words (5 letters). One session per day (if everything goes well) and there is some (slow) progress :slight_smile:
I think it requires a lot lot of training until the brain adopts new methods.

73, Roman

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Andy,

I think all these methods take you back to the same place via different routes. There are basically 3 processes that you need to run in your head more or less in parallel:

  1. Read the individual character
  2. Take the individual characters into your word buffer, process the characters and decide what the word is.
  3. Move the word you just decided into your sentence.

If 1 & 2 are taking all your processing power, you will struggle to run process 3!!

So you need to get to a stage where 1 and 2 are background processes that just happen. The most common “word” we use on the air is a callsign, so it makes sense to practice recognising them effortlessly.

Callsign & contest trainers are great for this, like Morse Runner. Read the full callsign into your head, then type it in. You can even do it on real SOTA callsigns thanks to ON6ZQ | Morse Runner

The reading of serial numbers in these trainers is worthwhile for reading the numbers in summit references. It’s just practice and once you are comfortable with callsigns + numbers at speed there are contests every weekend to have a dabble in should you wish.

73 Gavin
GM0GAV

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HI Andy
Morse letter and word retention in the head comes with practice, practice practice. You will realise you are improving and have mastered the art when you can capture a full callsign in your head (most easiest with the callsigns you are familiar with - the regular chasers for instance). In time you should be able to memorise the full callsign and without delay complete your exchange and then after that write or type the callsign down whilst subconciously hearing the confirmation from the station you have just worked. Then you can get straight on to listening for the next caller and work him the same way. For most people to get really good at this takes many months or years of practice I believe.

Back in the day professionals when scripting Morse by hand and not keyboard, were taught to write characters down without having to lift the pen off the paper as you were then able to write at a faster speed to keep up with the faster Morse.

73 Phil

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Hi,
Head copying, ok, I describe it how I learned it myself.
For me it was a slow process but it developed automatically.
There are 4 seperate areas:
The very short SOTA and contest qso type.
The normal qso
The ragchew qso.
Call signs
Short and normal qso: all that info that comes often, example wx, name, qth and so on you learn to understand automatically, simply by using it and listening, after some time you hear things like 73, rst, 5NN without even realising,it comes like normal speach.
A ragchew qso is something completely else, you need training + a lot of qsos for that.
I give an example how to learn the 100 most common words in English: a link:


There is a series there where you can switch to the 500 most common words.
Call sign recognition: an example: the cw freak net, there you can learn and go into competition with operators in the whole world.
73
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Thank you all for your excellent replies. Please excuse my lengthy comments.

Guru and Larry, it’s good to hear that. Coming from highly-experienced CW operators like you, it gives me the confidence that I’m already doing it the right way. Also, that there’s no ‘silver bullet’ method I’m missing. Had there been one, I’ld rather hear now rather than later, Oh you should have used such n’ such method

Wow! You were much younger then than I am now [70 this summer]. Thank goodness what we used to be told - that human brains stop developing around the age of 20 - is a myth, and in fact, science now tells us one’s brain continues to lay down new neural pathways as we develop new skills regardless of age. My old brain will take longer to reach my speed goal for head copying SOTA QSOs [25wpm] than in my youth but I have the motivation that comes from the pleasure of this great hobby.

Hi Andrew, probably this is why most of the internet comments I’ve read have been about the benefits of head copying rather than describing how-to techniques. You reinforce the common theme that it’s now just practise, practise and, eh well, more practise.

Since listening to GB2CW and W1AW I’ve worked up from 5wpm to 13wpm quite quickly [actually, the 5wpm was harder as the gaps between letters and between words is too long and I ‘lose’ the word boundary]. At first, the smallest distraction [drinking from my coffee cup!] threw my concentration but I’ve started listening to MP3s of these slow Morse TX’s whilst walking the dog to ‘ruggedize’ my head copying with real-world distractions – which will help once I start SOTA activating again. I’m struggling with long words [e.g. 12-13 letters] and have to replay the MP3s once or twice.

Hi Gavin, I use Morse Runner - it’s excellent for developing my pile-up handling skill but it forces me to develop a keyboard typing skill I don’t need in practise. MR is great for contesters who use computer-based logs but I will never use an electronic device for logging at summits – My rite in the rain notebook and pencil are as high-tech as my portable logging will go. Similar problem with RufzXP – keyboard entry. I use Ham Morse [on my iPhone and iPad] for practising callsigns (as well as common English word) either for hard copying [in the past] or head copying [now].

Phil, yours is one of about a dozen regular chaser callsigns that I have memorized. I’m sure that number will grow. I expect head copying to be a long project with the smaller SOTA ‘vocabulary’ as my short-term goal and common English words for general QSOs [and eventually ragchews] for the long term.

Hi Patrick, I’m glad you identified these different aspects of head copying because they seem to tie in to the two methods. For me, the majority of callsigns and ragchew words don’t have unique word sounds in my brain and need method 2. I’ve got most of short SOTA QSOs vocabulary [except callsigns] already as method 1 albeit at only 10-13wpm at present.

Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out later. The Ham Morse app also has the 100 or 500 most-common English words.

73 Andy

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Hi Andy,
This is not about head copying a full CW conversation, but let me explain the way I do and I guess many others do too for copying callsigns easily, even the long ones like for instance: EA8/HB9BCB/P
If I hear this callsign once, the different parts of the callsign get converted into concept ideas in my brain so I can easily remember it.
When I hear EA8/ my brain stores the concept of someone in the Canary Islands
When I hear HB9 my brain stores the concept of a Swiss ham in the Canary Islands
Then I only have to memorize the randomly assigned 3 letters suffix, which, is this case, is an easy one to remember being it a palindromic group of letters.
Finally I hear /P and my brain stores the concept of Portable station.
Having completed this storing process, all I have to do when sending the full callsign back to the chasing station as well as when writing it down on my paper log is rethink about the following concepts:
Station from outside the Canary Islands transmitting from the Canary Islands: EA8/
Swiss station: HB9
Easy palindromic suffix memorized in my short term memory: BCB
Portable station: /P

Another long callsign:
CT7/K9PM/P
Here, the first thing I store in my brain is CT7, the preffix foreigners have to use in main land Portugal.
Then K9, which is a US callsign from the North midWest area around the Lakes.
The suffix PM together with K9 tell me that it’s Paul, so now I can easily remember it’s Paul transmitting from Portugal, as he often does lately.
Finally I hear /P and my brain stores the concept of Portable station.

It’s very easy when you copy the callsing of regular chasers. When you know the operator’s name and you have even chatted with him/her on the air or the Reflector, for instance, all your brain has to remember is the concept of that individual person calling you and your brain will produce the full callsign without even thinking on it as you do with their names.

That’s it. I hope this is of help to you or anyone else.

73,

Guru

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Wow! Guru, I’m very impressed. Even now I often have to ask chasers to resend multi-part callsigns like that example especially during a noisy pile-up - although, following your suggestion some months ago to use Morse Runner, I’m getting better.

I think your callsign head-copying method is in the ‘advanced’ training module which I’ll try once I’ve mastered the basics.

May I add to the conversation from the point of view of someone that has always “head copied”? I think that the biggest mistake (and we almost all make it!) in learning Morse code is that we start learning by writing it down. We don’t do that with any other “language” skill and I am sure it is a major reason why people find it difficult to progress.

When I was learning Morse code as a schoolboy in the mid 1960s I had no-one to teach me so I just listened on the radio. I walked about a mile to school each day and I would sing out the Morse for all the car registrations as they drove past. As I got closer to school there were more cars passing so I had to increase my CW speed until, at last, I could no longer keep up. As I got better, I found I could keep up until closer to school - a useful if arbitrary measure of progress!

But here’s the critical point. Nowhere in the learning process was I writing anything down, whether it was writing down what to send or writing down what I was receiving. I think this is a much better way to learn and it seems to have worked - I am a 100% CW operator and can comfortably copy 30 - 40WPM all day long… in my head.

So how to fix the write-it-all-down problem? I think the answer is to do as I did - just “live” CW. When you’re out and about (difficult with all this Covid lockdown nonsense) translate signs and car number plates into Morse. This will help you get used to the sound of Morse and the cadence of letters and numbers as a string of characters, which is so important to being able to copy code.

Listen on the air to rag chews (plenty still around) and immerse yourself in the conversation. To begin with you may not copy all the letters or words but, guess what! that doesn’t matter. The great thing is that you don’t need to because you can generally miss quite a lot and still work out what is being said from the context. You copied “t?e” so that’s got to be “the”. You got “My Q?H is L??don” is pretty well certain to be “My QTH is London” and so on. We do this in every day speech, so why not in Morse?

Whatever you do, put that pad and pencil well out of reach, so you aren’t tempted to revert to bad habits.

I cannot pretend that it is easy, especially as we get older and as others have said continual practice is the only way. That’s why I think it is so important to take Morse into your every day world, where there are so many opportunities for practice. What I can tell you is that the effort is absolutely worth while. Once you can send and receive Morse fluently without having to resort to paper as a go-between then your speed can and will increase and it will just be so much more fun!

73, John, G3WGV

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Hello John,

Reading about your experience I’m reminded of that old joke about a stranger asking a local man for directions and the local says, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here”.

It’s almost certain that it’s because you had no-one as a boy to teach you that you - almost by accident – were head copying whilst learning the code itself – as it turns out, probably the best method. But for many of us, head copying is something fairly new and we have years or decades of doing it a different way to deal with.

You’re not the first one to say it was a mistake to write the code down. But remember – for most of the 20th century - most of us learnt Morse code in a way needed to pass the Morse test to become radio amateurs [you needed to give your written copy to the examiner]. Others were professional radio operators and had to write the message precisely for handing it on to others. So, hard copying was the norm back then and encouraged by all amateurs helping me in my younger days.

Of course, nowadays, with the abolition of the Morse test for RAs and the end of CW for most professionals, the need for hard copying has gone, so like you, I would recommend anyone starting now to do it the way you did.

Anyway, your suggestions about totally immersing oneself in Morse wherever possible are well taken.

73 Andy

What you describe is 100% correct.
But you forget something very important and that is that the human brain is guessing what is to come.
So you hear HB and your brain is guessing it will be HB9, instead the call is in reality HB3 your brain gets confused and the suffix of the call you don t get because your brain is confused and needs extra time to get back on track.
The human brain is special. If I say to you: do not think about an elephant. What does your brain it thins about an elephant.

I forgot an important things to tell:
Ragchew: In hamradio a lot is done in English. Ragchew with head copy cw is not easy. Now think of someone who is not native English speaker. Very difficult. Most difficulty comes in for a non English native speaker when words in his own language are nearly the same as in English except for 1 or 2 letters. example in his own language the word starts with a K in English it is with a C.
The difficulty multiplies when you are very good in several languages but not a native speaker.
I know the problem first hand. I speak German and Dutch perfectly, English very good + a basic French.

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I think this method works for me easily because, since my begining in ham radio, I’ve spent long time working DXCC, WAS, WAE and I’ve long time had a World map on the wall of my shack with all ham preffixes on it, so when I hear VK7, for instance, I immediately think of the Isle of Tasmania and I even visualize it’s location on the World map. Same with 4S7, which takes me immediately to Sri Lanka and it’s location South of India. The same with GM, G, GW, GJ. GD, for instance, which instantly tells me which part of the UK that callsign is from, so all I have to do is thinking on Scotland if I heard a GM or England if a G, Wales if a GW, Jersey if GJ, Isle of Man if GD. Likewise I’ll think of Scotland with the newer preffix if I heard a MM preffix and so on.
I guess this comes automatically with many years of ham radio operation and it’s something the newbies can’t do right away.
Ham radio and working DXCC taught me a lot of geografy around the World. That’s another one of the several benefits anyone can get out from this awesome, great hobby.
73,

Guru

Again forgot something
You know HB9BIN? Jürg in his own language but in cw it is juerg, all that your brain has to process fast, very fast when you are sending a nice 24 words/minute.
In German ä gets ae, ü gets ue, so now make a cw ragchew in German when you are not a native German speaker

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Absolutely, Andy and I was somewhat reticent about posting my thoughts for exactly that reason. I do think, however, that it is never too late to start and that the total immersion approach is valid. That’s what people do if they want to learn a new language quickly and in many respects, learning Morse is like learning a language.

You’re absolutely right about the historical context of Morse training and indeed I had to write it down when I turned up at Cunard House for my Morse test all those years ago. Having come from the direction of reading code in my head that didn’t seem like a big deal but I was only 15 and few things seem like a big deal at that age! Now that there is no Morse test there is certainly no reason to teach people to write it down.

Another thing I just thought of, having just emerged from the UK/EI contest is that taking part in CW contests is another excellent way of improving one’s CW dexterity.

However you go about it be assured that it is 100% worth the effort and it’s extremely rewarding to be able to listen to CW as if it were just a conversation… which of course it truly is. Good luck with your endeavours.

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