Learning the Morse code is not particularly difficult, but there are several common pitfalls that typically interfere with the learning process. The best advice I have for learning the Morse code is to get together with someone who is proficient with the code and work one on one with that person. This way, you can avoid developing bad habits that you will have to unlearn later.
If such a person is not available, then learning the code becomes a bit more difficult. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the Morse code is an aural language. It is the pattern of sounds, not the number of dots or dashes, that make up the language. You can hum a song learned in your youth because you heard it a lot; you sang and/or hummed it a lot, and the sounds of that song became incorporated into your brain. Learning the Morse code requires that same skill set.
The Morse code is made up of only three things– the sound represented by di (or dit), the sound represented by dah, and the spaces in between. Many people just learning the code don’t understand the importance of the spacing. There are many CW operators on the air that run their code together horribly. This makes copying them very error prone and difficult. Proper spacing will help avoid this.
Another thing to understand is that receiving the code and sending the code are two different skill sets. Most people find sending the code relatively easy compared to receiving it, once the characters are learned.
The first task is to learn the sounds of the characters. Say the patterns out loud to yourself as you write down the individual characters. You say dih-dah dit, and you write down ‘R’, etc. Listen to the code sent properly at about 12 to 15 words per minute using one of the apps mentioned in HJL’s response to the original letter. A common mistake is to learn the characters at a very slow rate first. If you do this, you’ll find it even more difficult to learn a reasonable rate as you will have to forget the previously learned slow rate while attempting to learn the new sounds at the faster rate. If you learn the code characters at around 15 words per minute from the beginning, the transition to 20 to 25 words per minute is very easy and comes quite naturally with practice and experience.
When I was learning the code, one thing that helped me a lot was to attempt to say the code for the letters and words found on street signs I passed as I drove around town every day. I would try to say everything on the sign before I passed it. At first, all I could do was the numbers on speed limit signs. I quickly learned “STOP”, “SPEED”, and “LIMIT”, and other common words. Another thing that helped me was to say the words I was reading in the newspaper, magazines, or even the cereal box in the code. Remember, you are trying to associate the sound patterns you hear to each character. Learning the code takes a significant directed effort. You must do the work.
As to sending the code, HJL was correct in his response saying that a straight key and paddle require two different skill sets. However, I would suggest learning on a straight key first. With a straight key, you are developing muscle memory in your hand, wrist, and forearm. How you hold and move your wrist, hand, and arm relative to your key matters. Practice will develop muscle memory over time. Also, the quality of your key and its proper adjustment matter. Again, the best advice is to seek out the help of a skilled CW operator. With the skills learned with the straight key, you can send the code adequately with as little as two wires pressed together.
Learning first on the paddle allows you to send code much faster and sooner than with a straight key. The result of the ease of sending code is that you end up sending faster than you can receive; when the other person comes back to you at that fast speed, you get lost, panic, miss most of what they are saying, and feel dumb. Learning the paddle after first becoming proficient with a straight key tends to improve your overall quality of sending the code.
Working another CW operator while sending and receiving good quality code with proper spacing and at a fairly quick pace is a real pleasure. Working someone who is erratic in their sending speed with words and characters jammed together is inefficient and is a lot more work than pleasure.
I hope this helps some of you who are having difficulty learning the Morse code. I’ve been an avid CW op for over 40 years, and it is still my favorite mode. I hope to work some of you on the bands soon.