The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 7 - Listening or "Reading"

"Copying in Your Head"  Just listening to good code sending is perhaps the very best way, both  to learn the code and to advance in skill.

It is surely the simplest and easiest -- no distractions -- you can give your whole attention to just listening to and trying to understand -- no struggling to write at at the same time. Isn't that the way we all learned our language?  Watch how little children learn.

L I S T E N !

Many experienced teachers consider that just listening to good code without writing anything down is the very best form of code practice at all stages.  It serves a number of purposes.
First, it keeps our attention to the fact that code is sound, and we are learning to recognize the sound patterns of each character and of some words.
Second, and very important, it helps to reduce any tension associated with getting every letter written down (no distractions)   But there is more -- it helps us get very familiar with using the code.

So,  listen, listen, listen to improve.  As soon as  you have some mastery of the alphabet, start listening at every opportunity to good sending, even while doing other things that do not require your close attention (e.g., cooking, eating, working with hands on routine things).  Don't think you need lots of new recordings.  Remember that: "To repeat often is to learn." Replaying of the same familiar materials over and over, day after day,  is especially helpful if you do it creatively, really listening to it.  Play them over and over, paying close attention, trying to understand. As you listen, let your  mind be open and receptive -- intent on listening to each signal as it arrives. not anticipating or trying to remember what it said before. --  So. let yourself get familiar with the code by taking some time every day to relax and enjoy just listening to good CW.

This kind of listening is listening creatively, constructively, as it comes along..  This has several distinct advantages, not the least of which is to take away any tension or strain -- you know what it is talking about -- you are already familiar with it in general and you feel more comfortable with it.  And -- you are getting really familiar with the sound of code -- it is becoming increasingly meaningful to you.  So, you can benefit greatly by listening to the same things over and over in this constructive way -- just listening as it comes along.  But as you advance mix in a patterns of new and unfamiliar recordings, too.  The new material will become easier and easier with this kind of practice.  You can make your own recordings: -- a few ARRL bulletin broadcasts, quality QSO's -- Bible passages are good -- or other text material and play them back over and over.

Especially in the early stages of receiving, when things go very slowly, and often again when you have gained considerable skill, the mind may tend to wander off somewhere else, or go galloping ahead (jumping to conclusions).  As you listen, hang onto every letter, word and phrase -- hang on like a leech (that is, concentrate on it), really listening to it. (This also helps; take off any strain, knowing something of what is being said.)  Remember that in practical communications, when we listen to the radio, the signals are here and then gone and cannot be brought back unless they were recorded.. You are learning to get so familiar with the sound of code that doing it right the first time will be easy.  Easy familiarity will help us to do that.

We are more likely to rush ahead when we are fresh and alert. Don't let your mind try to outrun the sender. We must resist letting our minds wander off, or anticipate, or pause to try to figure something out.  Some of us do this in normal conversation and reading, but we need to be especially on guard against this in code reception.  Don't let it become a habit with Morse.  As we listen, we need to disconnect all conscious analytical processes, and instead maintain an eager readiness to receive -- to hear each letter, word and phrase as it comes along, willing for it to be whatever it will be.  That means we hang on to every letter, word and phrase as it comes along, ready for the next one.  Listen, keep listening and want to understand. Let's develop the desire and feel for doing this.  There is no need ever to become embarrassed (or panic) because you can't read or copy everything you hear.


Am I afraid of losing something?   I must let go of that fear, and relax and learn to trust the mind and to enjoy listening. It is a fact that the less hard we try, the better we will receive.  Don't ever stop to try to figure out something you didn't catch. Keep following the sender -- keep listening and you will soon be getting enough to make sense out of every sentence, and in time you will get all of it.  But even when you are quite good there will be some words which don't make sense at first -- in most cases you will make sense out of it as you go on following the sender, and without even trying.  The context and redundancy both help fill in the gaps -- just keep focussed on the signals. (And don't forget that the sender sometimes may have made a mistake.)  If you have learned only to write things down, it will take some practice to learn to "copy in your head" without writing. Listen to understand.    Keep listening, not worrying about losing here and there.   Soon the signals seem to be slowing down as they parade before your mind or "inner eye" as meaningful words and phrases.   Learn to listen for whole words, phrases and the meaning of messages rather than single letters.


Many an old-timer has always copied down everything he receives: he has never learned to sit back and relax and just enjoy conversing.  He needs to throw away his pencil and learn to enjoy listening for listening's sake.  Many a newer-comer likewise feels tied to his pencil and paper out of fear he may miss something if he doesn't get it all written down, every letter of it.  This creates a tension, a strain that impedes the normal functioning of the telegraphic "habit" of mind. "Throw away your pencil and enjoy just listening" is good advice.


In receiving, we must learn more and more to shut off all distractions and concentrate our attention on the signals we are listening to, what is being said.   We need to learn to center our attention consciously on the signals and ignore all else, until it becomes a habit -- automatic.  Prepare yourself to do this immediately before starting to listen and whenever there are lulls.  Make it a habitual mental clearing-for-action, so you can pay attention solely to the signals you hear.  When we are interested in what we are hearing this will help us concentrate.  So let's want to know what is being said -- yet not so intensely interested that we begin to guess what is going to be said and miss out on what is actually being transmitted.

An agent who was  responsible for hiring ship-board operators was himself a dyed-in-the-wool cw operator.  He connected a telegraph key in his office with a buzzer in the waiting room. Then whenever there was an opening, he would send an appropriate name from his prospect list in Morse code.  If the man didn't answer promptly, he simply skipped him and went to the next name.  He believed that a good shipboard operator should be alert, able to respond to cw.  Isn't that an interesting way to get a good operator? --  Is he listening, alert?


As you become more familiar with the code alphabet, you will soon be hearing letters easily enough -- it is time to begin to think in terms of meaning -- that means starting to hear words instead of strings of letters.    But as speeds go up, there is a limit to our ability to spell out words.  Our next goal is to hear words.   Let each word or code group develop on the internal monitor screen of your mind.  Begin to develop sound consciousness of words.  This does not mean you have to relearn words, but only change your approach from visual to sound.  Practicing with lists of words, replaying texts or QSO's -- this kind of practice can help you gain that familiarity with words commonly used.

There is a limit to our ability to spell words out mentally and remember them.   As long as we hear only letter-by-letter, we almost have  to copy them down to understand what is being sent. To hear code as we talk, we have to learn to hear words as words -- that  makes the code readable or "conversational," and not just short or long strings of letters.  This is stage two.  If you have learned to hear and think of at least some of the 100 most common words as words, you already have taken the first steps.  Words are the building blocks of language, so we need to begin to hear, not code or letters, but more and more in words as perception units.   (Step three, the expert stage, is to learn to hear more by ideas -- total content -- than by words.)


When we begin to hear and send in words instead of individual letters our receiving ability and speeds are going to improve.  That is part of our goal in making the code more useful and enjoyable.  Hearing  words instead of strings of letters will make speeding up natural and easy.  It will require some practice and effort.  The mind has to be pushed, but not too hard.  Let's do it the easy way, in short practice periods.  Learning to recognize whole words becomes an automatic process of decoding, something that lets us understand as we hear.  This is no big job -- the word "the", for example, is no longer than the number 9.

Start learning to hear common short words until they have become indelibly fixed in mind as word sounds.  Learn to read by words as readily as you recognize letters.   First learn to hear common short words over and over until they have become indelibly fixed in mind as word sounds, as if someone had actually spoken them to you.  Extend this to longer words by such methods as the following which some people have found helpful:-
A "MENTAL SCREEN"  is like a typewriter writing --  visualize a typewriter or blackboard on which writing out each word as it comes, writing it along letter by letter along the line, or like one of  those lighted display signs where the words walk slowly across the screen.  Let each word develop on the internal monitor screen, or blackboard of your mind so you "see" it being written in context.  Try "projecting" the letter or number, etc., for split second on your mental screen as you listen to it to encourage instantly "seeing" it in your mind when you hear it.  Learn to write on your mental blackboard.    This helps focus our attention on the signals forming words, and learning to "see" them as words.  Let you mind be blank as you listen to fast code, and soon the letters jump out at you.

Some have found that PHONICS can  make comprehension and speed building easy and natural this way:--.  Relax and think of the sounds of the code letters, not as letter names, but as they are pronounced in words.  Like this -- while the word "west" is being received --  as each letter comes along one after the other say out loud, or to yourself:  "wuh, wuh...wee, wee...wes, wes,...west", progressively building up the word in mind by sound.  This makes it easier to hear their sounds.  Sound them out one after another as they come along until we get syllables and finally the sound of the whole word itself.  It teaches the mind to decode the dit-space-dah patterns and combinations into their sound values, the way we hear words.

This system doesn't work perfectly, of course, because English is not written in a perfectly phonetic way.  Some of the letters are "silent", like final "e."  Let the letters combine into words as you hear them in code, much as we recognize words as we hear their sounds  You can help by practicing with the common letter combinations (br, gl, ng, etc.) and syllables (com-. ex-, inter-, -ment, -ing, -tion, etc.) to get familiar with them.  Reading whole words this way then becomes a process of decoding from something we hear in bits and pieces into something we hear and understand as meaningful units.   It even can help with abbreviations.  You may like to try this approach and let it become automatic.  When we have learned to hear words as words, we can often also mentally correct a sender's errors or signal drop-outs while listening.

The importance of PROPER WORD SPACING should become more obvious now.  It gives the mind a split second to make sense out of the stimuli it has just received.  Those word separating spaces are vital.  The following exercise is worth a try -- as soon as you recognize a word by the space which follows it (if the sending is not too fast, and the spaces between words are long enough), try saying each word out loud (or mentally to yourself) as you recognize it.  You may want to make up some practice materials which leave wider spaces between words to allow time to say them.  (It may also be useful to practice this way with short groups of numbers, such as 2 or 3 digits.)  Notice how, as you listen,  the silence before  says "start here" and as the following space says "it is finished", sort of islands of rest.  That is why gaining familiarity with the sound of code words is so helpful.  It makes the word a meaningful unit, and you get to feeling easy about receiving what makes sense.  The more words you are familiar with the easier it is to receive.  It banishes tension.

One ham put it this way:  "the code just flows into my ear and comes out as words."  Just as we have learned to let the mind recognize each code character and present it to us consciously and automatically, now we must take that next step and trust the same mind to store these letters and put them together into words without demanding to be conscious of the process and "hear" each letter individually.   We have to learn to let our subconscious mind present us with the words they form.  As long as we insist on recognizing each individual letter, we are interfering, meddling with our normal habitual mind's functioning, and misdirecting our attention.

The goal is to learn to listen to the code as you would to the spoken word.  Eventually the sound will trigger your consciousness just as the spoken word does and then, when you can do this, it will also be easier to copy it down.


To improve we must begin by listening at a speed higher than we are comfortable with, in order to get used to it and speed up our recognition.   We ought to listen at different speeds, both slower and faster than we can easily read.  We need to be flexible -- to avoid staying at any one speed too long at a time.  Along with this, let's practice listening to lots of standard English at speeds close to our limit.  This limit should keep going up as we continue to practice this way . A total of a half-hour a day spent just listening at speeds we can barely follow will work wonders in a couple of weeks.  Listen as you would at a concert, enjoying it as you go.

Sometimes we should pick speeds so high that we can only make out a character here and there.  This kind of listening will quickly help us to begin to get more and more.  Small words will start jumping out -- as soon as they have been sent we will know what the words are, although we didn't consciously spell them out as they were coming in.  We need to  continue this kind of practice,  and soon we will be getting enough of each sentence to make sense out of it.  Learning Is Variable  Some days you'll do better than others, but don't let this trouble you -- that's normal.  All of us are like that for a while at each speed.

You will discover that sometimes you can read several words solid, and then not be able to read anything more than a letter here and there for some space.  All this is part of normal learning.  Keep on listening: give the incoming signals your undivided attention and keep relaxed, as though listening to a friend talk.  Soon you will be catching not only small words, but longer ones . . . until you are getting it all.      You will discover, with practice, that the signals, which were too fast before, will seem to be slowing down as they parade before your inner eye as meaningful words and phrases. -- An interesting example is the blind amateur who could copy 35 wpm, and came across some code practice and listened.  He lost a letter here or there, and then was startled when they said it was 55 wpm practice!


Static, interference or fading can momentarily wipe out a letter or two, a small word or  part of a longer word.  Momentary inattention (due to mental fatigue, distraction or something else) on our part while sending or receiving  can do this, too.  When a word is decapitated the first several letters are missing. This makes things particularly difficult in English, because word beginnings  are so important for us to be able to make sense of a word -- and worse, this is often the accented part.  In fact, when we can get the first several letters of a word don't we often know pretty well what the whole word is likely to be?

When reception is solid as we are just listening, some strange things may happen:  a little word or the first part of a long word comes along which seems unfamiliar -- has no recognizable shape -- and we stumble a moment trying to make sense of it. This tends to blank our minds against hearing the next few letters and then we are likely to lose the what immediately follows, in the case of a long word, the whole word.  At other times our minds sometimes seem to go into reverse after the first few letters of a long word, then misses a couple of letters in the middle, tries to pick them up, and finally loses the whole word.

How to can we stop this?  We mustn't let missing out first part of a word distract us so that we stop hearing the rest of it. -- How can we prevent this? Is part of the tension caused by missing out or losing first part due to recognizing a time gap with nothing recognizable to fill it? --  We may be able to recapture long words if we just keep on listening.  (When we are copying we can often fill it in afterwards from the context.)  A broken word (interrupted, disjointed) results when the missing letter (or letters) occurs in the middle of the word. Sometimes this break is due to the sender who inadvertently hesitates an instant too long between two letters.  In either case, the space between letters is too wide and our minds interpret this as a break, marking it as the end of one word and the beginning of the next.  Since it doesn't make sense, we realize something is wrong and wonder what word that last group of letters was.  (Let this be a warning to avoid it our own sending.)

When a wrong letter (mis-spelling) or a non-character is sent or a word is left out it may distract us in much the same way. Really, isn't this much like a misprint in reading.  Don't we often skip right over a misprint or missing word and hardly notice it?  How do we do that?  Isn't it because we understand it in the context?   Can't we learn to do this in telegraphy also? -- Where one or more letters or even words are wrong or missing, can't we often fill them in correctly?  We can learn to do this for missing or extra dits, etc., mentally correcting them as we listen.  As we have emphasized before we must just let it go and keep on listening.  If we pause try to figure it out at this point, it will divert our attention from reception to analysis, and seriously disrupt with our automatic reception as we try to make sense out of  it.  Frequently we discover that as we go it will clear itself up.

First, we must keep focussed on the incoming signals without struggling to make sense out of them.  TRYING to make sense is a conscious activity, interfering with the automatic mental functioning.   A sense of concern is involved - concern that we won't be able to remember the first part until the word is finished, or that its beginning is peculiar, has no recognizable shape (e.g. technical or medical terms), or that it is going to be a word we won't be able to recognize at all (doesn't seem familiar).  For many words, one way to help is to get familiar with the common prefixes and suffixes so that they are "heard" as units instead of separate letters.  We must learn not to let conscious thought block further reception.


When we listen on the radio, static, fading and interference tend to slow us down.  Under these conditions high quality sending (accurate timing) will get through far better than sloppy sending.  But there are certain adjustments or changes which can be made in our receiving equipment which will help: e.g. the use of RF and audio filters, changing the tuning of IF amplifiers, etc..  These will help separate signals and reduce noise.

Static and irregular non-signal types of electric interference can often be reduced by turning down RF gain and increasing AF gain to bring the signal up.  Some noises can be canceled in the brain by using headphones wired so that they are out of phase with each other.  Dual-diversity reception can greatly reduce or eliminate fading, but this requires a major equipment change:  two separate antennas and two identical RF front ends are necessary.  The ear is an excellent discriminator of CW signals in QRM, noise and other interference, much superior to any equipment available today.

We can train our ears to minimize interference by focussing our attention to the one signal we want to hear. The musical pitch and quality, so long as two signals are not identical, can help us separate them, while the speed and style of sending also help greatly to separate the one we want from the other.  In addition, the ear can be trained to read incredibly weak signals in the midst of strong distractions. Some operators have learned to get almost 100% copy in spite of all these.

Some have found that by listening in the dark, or closing their eyes, they can focus more sharply on signals which are in the midst of interference and other distractions.  You may want to try it and see if it helps you develop or improve this skill.  Finally, sometimes writing it -- copying -- may help us to concentrate.

Any experienced telegrapher, regardless of what he is doing,effortlessly hears what is being said on the air or on the wires.

The Art and Skill of Radio-Telegraphy-Second Revised Edition-
©William G. Pierpont N0HFF