Head Copy CW, An Alternative Method: ‘Phonic Copy’

by Paul Carreiro, N6EV    (Updated February 4, 2017)

As with any processes, there are alternate methods to achieve an end goal.  Since I hadn’t seen it depicted yet in the various discussions about head copy, I want to share the method I use.  Like many have testified, my transition from written to head copy came by operating true mobile CW operation (in motion.. as opposed to portable operation) where written copy is impossible / impractical.

Before we break down the phonic method of head copy, let’s first consider basic code reception with the following concept from Steve, N8CPA: “Letters are graphic representations of sound.  Code is an aural representation of graphic representations of sounds.”  At the beginner level of code reception, code elements are received audibly; mentally converted to a letter representation of that code element; then that letter representation is written down.  Comprehension of the content of the message occurs only after the written letters are constructed into words and sentences.  As proficiency increases, the speed of this conversion improves, and perhaps the method of writing down each letter becomes more efficient. But the basic process is unchanged as speed increases.  Various speed plateaus are reached due to bad habits, poor writing techniques and ultimately, the limit induced by the time required to mentally convert from audio element to letter representation to written form.

Most head copy methods that you see described involve learning to recognize word code patterns rather than individual letters.  Variations also include using a mental ‘blackboard’ to queue up letters until a word is recognized.  Comprehension occurs after each word pattern is completed and recognized.  These word recognition methods have been used by countless operators successfully over the years.  Since the written portion of the process is removed, copy speed naturally is improved.  And while I understand the concept of recognizing word patterns… I often wonder what happens when a word arrives that you haven’t yet learned to recognize pattern wise?  Comprehension, while vastly improved over written copy, is still stuttered.  I want to be clear, I’m not saying the word pattern method is wrong or invalid.  To me, it just seems less efficient (and comfortable) than the method I’m about to describe.

The Phonic Copy method can be summed up by altering Steve’s concept above to read: “Code is an aural representation of a phonic sound.”  Each Morse Code element represents the phonic sound of a corresponding letter, not the letter itself.  This means, as elements (letters / numbers) are received, they are phonically pronounced in the speech / aural portion of the mind (the auditory cortex) rather than visualized graphically as letters or  whole words in the written / visual portion of the mind (the visual cortex).   One universal principle to increasing copy speed is to remove the number of steps or conversions it takes from reception to comprehension.  By eliminating the conversion from aural representation to graphic representation, phonic copy allows instant comprehension, many times even before a word is completed.  As Drew, AF2Z aptly states: “You can hear a word building to completion as it streams by, not as a unit word sound that pops into your mind …. (and) not as individual letters that you have to assemble either.  It’s more like spoken words that are being pronounced rather slowly.”

To expand on and better demonstrate the Phonic Copy concept, let’s use the word “PRONOUNCED” as an example.  I doubt this would be a word that many using the word pattern recognition method would have practiced and learned before hand as it is not a common word used in QSOs.  Look at the word ‘P R O N O U N C E D’ and step through it phonically letter by letter in the speech / aural portion of your mind.  Each letter has a distinct phonic sound associated with it.  This Phonic Copy method (thanks to Walt, W5ALT for helping give it a name) is the same process, except instead of visually stepping through the word as you just did, the phonic sound elements are recognized (verbalized in the speech / aural portion of the mind) as each code element is audibly received.  There is no visualization, letter queuing or pattern recognition involved (other than converting the code elements into phonics).  Numbers are simply recognized as you would speak them.  Punctuation and pro-signs are recognized easily by their pattern.

Copying this way, there are no unrecognized (not yet learned) patterns or words to worry about.  Nor is there a queue of letters to keep track of (blackboard method).  In fact, using this method, I can listen to two CW stations conversing in Spanish, and ‘hear’ the conversation as if they were in front of me.  Granted, comprehension is limited in this example as my Spanish is marginal!  The code simply flows as a phonically pronounced stream of words and numbers in the mind.  Comprehension is instantaneous (assuming you understand what the word means!), as opposed to waiting for a pattern (word) to be recognized.  As with other head copy techniques, this method is easier to use the faster the code is sent.  So it doesn’t lend itself to extreme QRS speeds.  It also lends itself to conversational CW where apprehension and the mind’s own error correction kick in.  You wouldn’t use this method to copy random five letter code groups.

You could compare these two head copy techniques to, on one hand, seeing a stream of written letters or words pop up on a computer screen (visual / graphically recognized pattern method), versus having words spoken out of a speaker of that computer (Phonic Copy method).  Or more simply, the difference between reading text versus listening to speech. Admittedly, I have not experienced the visual / pattern recognition head copy techniques that have been discussed and used by the vast majority of CW ops.  But it would still seem to me that Phonic (pronounced) Copy would be a more fluid and easily learned method.  It simulates an audible conversation with someone, as opposed to a chat room conversation. From personal experience using this technique, my head copy speed skyrocketed to over 45 wpm, and has easily translated down to slower speeds.  Copying ‘Conversational CW’ at QRQ speeds using the phonic method is truly effortless, relaxing and achieves that nirvana state where the Morse becomes a language, not just a code representing letters and numbers.

I offer Phonic Copy as an alternative method / perspective for head copy that has worked for me and others.  For whatever reason, it has not been well documented to my knowledge compared to the word recognition method.  And near as I can tell, a very small percentage of CW operators practice this method.  Take it or leave it.  Your mileage may and will probably vary.  No warranty expressed or implied.

What ever method you use… ENJOY CW!   As long as we communicate, and have fun while doing so… we’ve achieved the ultimate goal.

Your thoughts welcome.

Paul N6EV – © 2009


Learning the Phonic Copy Method

I’ve been asked many times since writing this article back in 2009 how to learn the Phonic Copy Method.  Initially, these were tough questions to answer as I didn’t intentionally set out to learn this method.  It came quite by accident without recognizing exactly what process I was using.  So I went back and analyzed the circumstances in which I learned to head copy phonically.  The key to this method, as mentioned above, is the use of the speech / aural sections of the brain (the auditory cortex, Broca’s area, Wernicke’s speech area) versus the written / visual sections used in other head copy methods.  I learned while driving long highway distances.  While driving, the brain processes the road and potential hazards ahead via the visual stimuli presented.  This leaves the aural / speech section of the brain available to process the auditory Morse Code into phonic speech sounds.

My advice for learning this method is to set yourself in an environment where your eyes are occupied by some visual stimuli, while your ears are left without distraction to process the incoming Morse elements.  As with other head copy methods, the code element speed should be at or above 18-20 WPM and the content should be plain conversational text, not random letters or words.  During initial training, it will be easier to start with Farnsworth style code, with plenty of space between each code element.  Start by consciously equating the sound of a code element to its corresponding phonic.  Don’t worry about catching every code element, words or comprehending the context of the text.  Then just keep the code in the background while occupying your eyes.  You can do this while driving if you have a receiver, or MP3 player.  Or, at home, start a long video with the audio turned down.  Pick something interesting. Perhaps the many ham related videos on YouTube.  Be sure the video’s audio is turned down, then start your Morse audio input.  It’s a bit like walking and chewing gum at the same time, but the brain has an amazing ability to multi-task like this.  As you gain more experience in converting the code elements to phonic sounds, progressively shorten the extra Farsworth spacing until it’s removed.

Keep at it and eventually you will pick up strings of phonic sounds that form words.  When you get to this point and start stringing words together you will start to comprehend the context of the conversation.  That’s when the other aspect of this method kicks in to assist… that of anticipation.  Just as with normal speech conversation, there are logical patterns to sentences (nouns / verbs / adjectives, etc), and there is logical flow to the context of conversation.  The language area of your brain (the Broca’s area) has already been trained to do this when you were a child learning to speak and understand speech.  It’s okay if you anticipate the next word wrong.  We’re not copying forward here. The brain will auto-correct when it hears speech it wasn’t expecting.  It’s an amazing muscle.  Exercise it!

To further reinforce the process of linking aural code elements to phonics, do the following.  In between the sessions of listening to plain text code described above; mix in some sessions where you send words from a key / code practice oscillator while sounding them out phonetically in the mind.   This too can be plain text by conducting a mock conversation / QSO.  Don’t read text while doing this.  Keep the process entirely aural.  Before sending each word, sound the word out slowly in your mind.  Then repeat the word, again in your mind phonetically as you send each letter on the key / code practice oscillator.  As you progress, you can eliminate the pre-sent sounding of the entire word.  At this point, just progress from word to word sounding them out phonically in the mind while sending each corresponding letter.

Please contact me and let me know if you have attempted to learn the Phonic Copy Method.  I’m curious what others results are like.  I’m available for advice and encouragement also.

73, Paul N6EV

‘dit dit’


Post Script

In the paragraphs above, I have referenced various areas of the brain.  Like many of you, I’m fascinated by the mechanics of the Phonic Copy method.  What exactly is going on in the brain?  How do the brain processes compare between the different head copy methods?  I need to declare right now that I am an Aerospace Engineer, not a Neuroscientist.  The assumptions made in this write-up of how the brain is processing Morse code into phonic elements may be completely off base.  I continue to read up on the topic to uncover the mystery.  I am finding that many of the processes involved with language processing here are still a mystery to modern science.  If you are interested in reading more about the various areas of the brain and processes involved, I’ve provided some Wikipedia links to get you started.  If you have ideas or experience in this area of reesearch and would like to share your thoughts, please feel free to contact me.  As I learn more, I will adjust the articles above appropriately.   73 – Paul  N6EV


Add a Comment
  1. This is really an important article, very insightful Mr Carreiro. Oddly the excellent, but much maligned method that I learned Morse with, Code Quick, set me up perfectly for phonic copy. The sound-a-likes became easily truncated to the sounds i.e. Dog Did It became the “d ” sound. Very best of 73, Tom Bruzan, AB9NZ, Mount Prospect, Illinois

  2. Great article Paul, I tried some of the suggestions regarding not focusing visually on the letters and it seems to work for me. Thank you.

    73, George


    1. Hi George! Thanks for dropping by the other day. I look forward to many more eye-ball QSOs with you. Stop by any time. And let me know if you need help or any electronic odds and ends. I’ve got lots of equipment / components.

      Paul N6EV

  3. OMG, Paul, that’s it!!!!
    While listening to head copy practice files in the car I have yet to get even close to a traffic incident. My eyes are seeing and my brain processing what it needs to while driving. Yet, I’m still able to copy no fewer words than when sitting using my visual cortex with my eyes close at home. TU ! Charlie NA2CC

  4. I am thoroughly enthralled with this approach to CW. I decided two years ago that voice was just too similar to the CB world I eschewed many years ago so I went 100% CW and never looked back. I have reached an acceptable level with copy possible at 22 to 25 wpm but with an exorbitant amount of effort and concentration in a QSO format, not the leisurely aspect you speak of and this is what I seek. Thanks for this great article and if you have a mailing list or any more research on this topic, I would really appreciate being informed.

    73, Monk

Leave a Reply