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Vinyl vision is the ability to see groove patterns in vinyl recordings and correctly identify musical recordings without the benefit of identifying labels. Only one person is on record as having this amusing ability: Arthur B. Lintgen, M.D., who demonstrated his talent in the 1980s to James Randi. Even though Randi promised to pay $10,000 to anyone who could demonstrate a paranormal ability [the prize is now $1,000,000], Lintgen's ability is merely abnormal, i.e., rare. Hence, his award was little more than a few moments of fame.
Once it was disclosed that he used ordinary sense perception, his vast knowledge of orchestral music from Beethoven onward and of recordings of such music, and deductive inference from general rules about such music, the mass media and the public lost interest. Though Lintgen continues to have a core following of true believers in his psychic powers, based on such astounding feats as identifying Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony" from across a room without even looking at the record, most consider Lintgen a decent fellow for not abusing his power over the gullible. He admitted, for example, that Beethoven's "Fifth" was the most common recording he was asked to identify (Seckel). He was simply making an educated guess, not using psychic powers, when he identified the recording without looking at it.
Lintgen did not claim to read individual notes in the record grooves. "The trick 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" (Seckel).
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 (Time, January 4, 1982).
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 (Seckel).
Lintgen was featured on the ABC-TV program "That's Incredible" in 1981. Before a live audience in the auditorium of Abington Hospital, near Philadelphia, he was tested by Stimson Carrow, professor of music theory at Temple University. Dr. Lintgen correctly identified 20 out of 20 recordings just by studying the record grooves (Holland).
He admitted that he used only his knowledge, experience, and reasoning power to accomplish this amazing feat. "I have a knowledge of musical structure and of the literature," he said. "And I can correlate this structure with what I see. Loud passages reflect light differently....Record companies spread the grooves in forte passages; they have a more jagged, saw-tooth look. I also know how the pressings of different labels look, so I can often figure out who is conducting" (Holland). He can also occasionally figure out the nationality of the orchestra, an ability that amazed even James "The Amazing" Randi. In Randi's test of Lintgen, the doctor not only identified a recording correctly but announced that the orchestra was German. The recording, he said, had an upturned edge, a feature that was unique to the Deutsche Grammophon label. He also saw that there was a "lack of junk in between the grooves," from which he inferred that the recording was digital. He also knew that "Deutsche Grammophon, up to that time, had only recorded German orchestras for their digital recordings" (Seckel).
Lintgen discovered his unusual ability at a party in the mid-1970s. Some friends said that he knows so much about music he could probably read the grooves of records. He tried it and found that as long as the recordings are of music that he knows--orchestral music from Beethoven to the present--he has a high rate of success.
The rest, as they say, is on the record.
The Record Reader - Urban Legends Reference Pages by Barbara and David P. Mikkelson
The Man Who Could Read Record Grooves by Al Seckel, Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1987
Read Any Good Records Lately? A Philadelphia physician has, and his secret is in the groove (Time, January 4, 1982).
A Man Who Sees What Others Hear by Bernard Holland, New York Times, November 19, 1981