The Record Reader
January 4, 1982

Read Any Good Records Lately?
A Philadelphia physician has, and his secret is in the groove

It is not E.S.P. Nor is it X-ray vision. Dr. Arthur Lintgen, 40, a suburban Philadelphia physician, cannot explain his bizarre talent. But he has it: the ability to "read" the grooves on a phonograph record and identify the music on it -- with the label and other identifying marks covered, of course. Lintgen simply holds a disc flat in front of him, turning it slightly this way and that and peering along its grooves through his thick glasses. After a few seconds he calmly announces, as the case may be, "Stravinsky's Rite of Spring" or Strauss's Atpine Symphony," or "Janacek's Sinfonietta."

A passionate music buff and audiophile, Lintgen (pronounced Lint-jen) has been regaling friends with the stunt for five years, ever since being challenged at a party and finding, to his surprise, that he could do it. He has also been put to the test by skeptical musicians and critics, as well as by James ("The Amazing") Randi, a professional magician who specializes in debunking claims of "paranormal" phenomena. Performing recently for a television crew from That's Incredible! he scored 20 for 20 in a demonstration set up by Temple University Musicologist Stimson Carrow.

All phonograph grooves vary minutely in their spacing and contour, depending on the dynamics and frequency of the music on them. Lintgen says that grooves containing soft passages look black or dark gray. As the music gets louder or more complicated, the grooves turn silvery. Percussive accents are marked by tiny "jagged tooth marks." The doctor correlates what he sees with what he knows about music, matching the patterns of the grooves with compositional forms. In a way, it is like reading a graph of a given work's structure. What is amazing about Lintgen is that he can read it so rapidly.

The doctor limits his deciphering to recordings of orchestral works from Beethoven on -- an area of the repertory he knows especially well, and one where the pieces are more individual in content and dynamics than in the relatively rigidly structured classical period. Vocal music is more difficult because all voices produce similar grooves.

Lintgen also draws the line at certain contemporary works, such as those of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. "That," says the doctor, "is not music." But he can spot such forbidding or lesser known compositions as Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie or Alan Hovhaness's Floating World "Ukiyo." "Those two were my best accomplishments," he says, "unless you count the time I recognized a recording of Beethoven's Fifth from across the room."