Science / Medicine : The Man Who Could Read the Grooves

<i> Seckel is active in Southern California Skeptics, a group that investigates scientific claims</i>

In 1982, Dr. Arthur Lintgen, a medical diagnostician from Pennsylvania, claimed that he could identify the music on a phonograph record simply by examining the pattern of grooves on its surface. Time magazine asked magician and psychic investigator James (The Amazing) Randi to investigate Lintgen’s extraordinary claim.

Randi, it was believed by Time, was eminently qualified to test the validity of Lintgen’s claim. For 35 years, Randi has tested people with all sorts of unusual claims. But most of them have claimed to be endowed with supernatural or paranormal powers.

Much to the chagrin of the many people who honestly believe that they have psychic powers, Randi’s properly controlled scientific tests, designed to prevent trickery and experimental bias, have so far failed to reveal any supernatural powers.

Although Randi was skeptical about Lintgen’s claims, he nevertheless asked Lintgen if he would be willing to participate in a scientifically controlled test. Lintgen agreed and thereby outlined his talent as follows:

He could only identify post-Beethoven classical music that was fully orchestrated. He could not identify spoken-word recordings or the words of contemporary classical composers who were relatively unknown.


Since Lintgen had put some limitations on his abilities, Randi believed that it was a claim that could be easily tested.

Randi designed a controlled test in which he assembled a number of popular recordings, carefully covered the labels and matrix numbers, slipped them into unmarked jackets and had a disinterested aide shuffle them.

A number of “controls” were placed in the test. These were two different recordings of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps,” an Alice Cooper recording and a spoken-word recording.

These controls were mixed in with Ravel’s “Bolero,” Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” Holst’s “The Planets,” a pair of famous Mozart symphonies and other known classical recordings. As a further precaution, Lintgen was not provided a list of the recordings used in the test.

Lintgen, a very nearsighted man with thick glasses, took the first recording off the pile, removed his glasses and placed his eye at the edge of the recording and slowly rotated it. He looked slightly puzzled.

“I think that this is Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony,” he said. “However, there is an extra movement in here that I can’t understand. Is it a strange recording?”

Randi replied that he could offer no clues. Lintgen examined it further and declared, “Yes! It is the Sixth Symphony, but it also contains an additional overture that I will guess is the ‘Prometheus Overture.’ ”

Lintgen was right.

He then pulled out another recording from the batch and identified it as Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps.”

At that time, Randi did not know if the recording that Lintgen was holding was indeed Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps,” but he knew that there were at least two different copies of that piece in the controlled test. At this point, Randi knew the man had the talent.

Lintgen pulled out the next recording and said with a wink, “Ah. You are trying to fool me! This is a different recording of the same piece.”

He proceeded to provide further information about the recording. “This version was performed by a German orchestra,” he stated.

An astonished Randi could hardly contain his reaction. “How could he possibly know whether the orchestra was French or German?” he wondered to himself!

Lintgen went on to correctly identify the rest of the classical recordings in the test.

He did declare that one of the recordings was “disorganized and gibberish.” That one turned out to be the Alice Cooper recording.

One other control amused Lintgen. “This is not instrumental music at all,” he declared, squinting at it closely. “I’d guess that it’s a vocal solo or spoken-word recording of some kind.” That recording was one of the controls, an instructional record titled, “So You Want to be a Magician?”

After the test was completed, Randi asked Lintgen to explain how he identified the recordings.

Lintgen told Randi that he was not picking out individual notes or reading the music from the grooves. “I can’t imagine anyone doing that,” he said.

The trick, Lintgen explained, is to examine the physical construction of the recording and look at the relative playing time of each one of the movements or separations on the recording.

According to Lintgen, a Beethoven symphony will have a slightly longer first movement relative to its second movement, while Mozart and Schubert would compose in such a fashion that each movement in many cases would have the same number of bars. Beethoven, however, had set out in a new direction and that changed the dynamics of the recording. In addition, if there was a sonorous slow beginning, one could look at the recording at that point and see a long undulating groove that would not contain the sharp spikes that would identify sharp percussion.

But how could he identify on one recording the nationality of the orchestra?

Lintgen said the recording had an upturned edge, a feature that identified it as being unique to the Deutsche Grammophon label. Since the recording was a digital recording, “because of the lack of junk in between the grooves,” Lintgen knew that Deutsche Grommophon, up to that time, had only recorded German orchestras for their digital recordings.

Lintgen also confessed that he is helped by several other factors, one being the fact that the most common recording that he is asked to identify is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

On one occasion, Lintgen stated, a dental colleague trying to impress one of his patients held up an unmarked recording for him to identify. Lintgen didn’t even bother to look at the record and decided to hazard a guess, “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony?” His correct response turned his dental colleague pale.