How to communicate with Morse code (using visual, audio, and pressure forms of communication)
About Morse Code
Morse code (not “Morris code”) is a method of transmitting textual messages using a series of patterns. Each text unit in the pattern can be represented (or reproduced) using on-off tones (sound), flashing lights, or clicks representing “dots” and “dashes” (known as dits and dahs). The traditional Morse code encodes the 26 Roman letters but extensions have been added to allow for representation of non-English languages and a small set of punctuation and procedural signals.
To improve efficiency and transmission speed, Morse code was designed so that the length of a character in Morse varies inversely with its frequency of use in the English language. For example, the letter “E” is the most used character in the English language and is represented by the shortest possible Morse code – a single dot.
Interestingly, individual Morse code operators differ slightly, for example using slightly longer or shorter dashes or gaps, perhaps only for particular characters. This is called their “fist”, and experienced operators can recognize specific individuals by their fist alone. A good operator who sends clearly and is easy to copy is said to have a “good fist”. A “poor fist” is a characteristic of sloppy or hard to copy Morse code.
Using Morse Code
Morse code using audio tones
Morse code can be transmitted in a number of different ways. Originally designed to be used as an electrical pulse along a telegraph wire, it can easily be represented as an audio tone. Used as an audio signal, Morse code can be transmitted via a radio signal with short and long tones or even the sound of a car horn. In survival situations, Morse code can be produced via the banging of pots and pans or knocking loudly on a hollowed log.
Morse code using visual cues
Morse code is commonly transmitted as a visual signal using flashing lights or reflections but can also be used as a non-detectable form of communication using the tapping of fingers or even blinking of eyes.
Using just two states (on and off), it is a form of digital code and can also be represented using 1’s and 0’s. For example, a Morse code sequence may be made from a combination of the following five bit strings:
- short mark, dot or “dit” (·) : 1
- longer mark, dash or “dah” (–) : 111
- intra-character gap (between the dots and dashes within a character) : 0
- short gap (between letters) : 000
- medium gap (between words) : 0000000
Morse code using touch or pressure
How to communicate using Morse Code
Each Morse code character is represented by a unique sequence of dots and dashes. A dot (or dit) represents a single unit whereas a dash (or dah) is three times the duration of a dot. Each dot or dash is followed by a short silence equal to one dot. Letters in a word are separated by silence equal to three dots (one dash) and words are separated by seven dots of silence.
- Dot – one “dit”
- Dash – three dits or “dah”
- Space between letters – three dits of silence
- Space between words – seven dits of silence
Learning to receive Morse code
The easiest way to learn Morse code is to find Morse code recordings, listen to them, and work out the encoded message on paper. While learning, do not get into the habit of counting the dots and dashes in the Morse code. Instead, learn to recognize the sound of each letter. If using a software application that helps train you in Morse code, never slow down the letter speed but rather, only slow down the letter spacing.
A dichotomic search tree can be used as a means to improve speed too (see example in the gallery). Using a dichotomic search tree, each time you hear a dit (short beep) you move down and to the left on the tree. Each time you hear a dah (or long beep), you move down and to the right. Practice with a dichotomic search tree can dramatically improve your Morse code transmission speed.
Another option when receiving Morse code is to simply jot down the dots and dashes and then use a chart (download below) to decode the Morse code message. “Pros” however, will point out that this effectively doubles the time is takes to decode the message.
Learning to transmit Morse code
Practicing Morse code can be done in your head or using the buttons on a smartphone device to produce audio Morse code tones. Pick a word you wish to transmit and hear the sound in your head. Dit is pronounced “di” with a short “I” and silent “T”. Dah is pronounced with a short “A” sound. Thus, “cat” would be pronounced dah-di-dah-di di-dah dah. Again, hear the code in your head. The letter “C” in cat sounds like dah-dit-dah-dit (long short long short). In Morse code, cat would look like this:
When transmitting, pay particular attention to your spacing. Each letter should be separated by a space equal to the same duration as a dah (three times the duration of a dit). Each word should be separated by a space that lasts about seven times the duration of a dit. The better your spacing, the easier your code will be to understand.
Morse code tips
It helps to know the number of dits and dahs in each letter. This will help you narrow down the possibilities when you receive a Morse code encoded message.
T, E= 1 character each
A, I, M,N= 2 characters
D, G, K, O, R, S, U, W= 3 characters
B, C, F, H, J, L, P, Q, V, X, Y, Z= 4 characters each
Morse code examples
Below are Morse code examples which may help you visualize the encoding/decoding of Morse code into its textual representation.
Basic Morse code
The chart below contains the complete International Morse code. Downloadable versions of the chart are available in the gallery below. In the charts, a dash is equal to three dots in time, while the interval between the dots and dashes in a letter equals a dot in time. Between the letters in a word the interval is equal to three dots and between words, five dots.
Morse code Q-Codes
Q-codes are standard three-letter message encodings often used in Morse code communication.
Morse code phrases
Other abbreviations are commonly accepted in Morse code communications including the list below.
Gallery of Morse Code charts
Below is a gallery of Morse code charts. Click the diagram and then right click to save a copy.