The Record Reader
The New York Times on the web
November 19, 1981

A Man Who Sees What Others Hear


Some talents elevate humankind. Others are sublime in their very pointlessness. An example of the latter is Dr. Arthur B. Lintgen and his astonishing ability to "read" musical recordings.

Before an audience in the auditorium of Abington Hospital, near Philadelphia, two weeks ago, Stimson Carrow, professor of music theory at Temple University, handed Dr. Lintgen a succession of 20 long-playing records chosen by Mr. Carrow and 10 of his graduate students. All identifying labels and matrix numbers were covered over, but Dr. Lintgen, simply by taking the records in his hands and examining their groove patterns in a normal light, identified the piece and the composer in 20 cases out of 20.

The event was arranged and filmed by the ABC-TV program "That's Incredible," which plans to air the segment early next month. Mr. Carrow had "never heard of Dr. Lintgen" before ABC called and asked him to administer the test. "We chose mainstream music - the Beethoven Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' by Strauss, the Tchaikovsky 'Nutcracker' - things the audience could relate to. Not only could he do it, he could recognize some of them 15 feet across the room."

In the Grooves

ABC's test was child's play next to the one witnessed by this writer in the doctor's suburban home in Rydal, Pa., a year and a half ago. It took place In the presence of Patricia Prattis and Marna Street, two reputable musicians occupying principal chairs in major American orchestras - both of whom had heard of Dr. Lintgen through a colleague treated in his hospital. Dr. Lintgen sat in his easy chair under an ordinary bridge lamp and identified, within 15 to 30 seconds and using only the record surfaces as a reference, the Bruckner Fourth Symphony, Rachmaninoff's "The Bells," Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony, Orff's "Carmina Burana" and the Saint-Saens "Organ" Symphony. For his piece de resistance, Dr. Lintgen spotted the Strauss "Alpine" Symphony, adding with pride - and astonishing correctness - that Strauss was conducting.

Dr. Lintgen's abilities do not include ESP or X-ray vision. Nor has he acquired his talent through hard work, study or memorization. A phone call to his home last Sunday was delayed for a few moments while he turned down the volume on his new recording of the Vaughan Williams Seventh Symphony. Then he explained, "I was at a party five years ago and friends of mine said, 'You know so much about music, I'll bet you can read the grooves of records.' I said I bet I could too - and I did, without any prior idea it was possible."

How does he do it? All is explainable - up to a point. First, Dr. Lintgen is a dedicated audiophile with an extensive knowledge of the record catalogue past and present. He can identify only music that he knows, and he guarantees a high rate of success only in orchestral music ranging from Beethoven to the present. Earlier music has a less demonstrable contrast of dynamics, he says, and chamber and solo instrumental music create erratic patterns to the eye. He also prefers newer recordings to the narrower sonic range of early LPs. "I get a lot of these right," he said. "But I'm much surer within my own limits." This range excludes excerpts or suite arrangements, because the length, structuring and order of different movements are part of the doctor's deductive processes. "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. In the grossest terms, they look silvery. Record companies spread the grooves in forte passages; they have a more jagged, saw-tooth look. Soft passages look blacker.

"I also know how the pressings of different labels look, so I can often figure out who is conducting." Given a Haydn symphony in the earlier test -a composer outside his ground rules -Dr. Lintgen noted the four-movement spacing, the A-B-A pattern in the minuet movement and the slow introduction at the beginning, and correctly identified the composer.

'I Don't Know How I Do It'

Yet his exactitude elsewhere as to composer and specific work (his colleagues swear he recognized Messiaen's "Turangalila" at a glance) defies mere processes of elimination. "Friends of mine with more scientific and musical knowledge than I have tried it unsuccessfully," he said. "I don't know how I do it. I have terrible eyesight."

Dr. Lintgen, who is 40, stresses that he is a happily committed man of medicine and views his strange sideline with mild amusement and nothing more. In the ABC test to be seen on "That's Incredible," he deferred two identifications until the end. One was a "Swan Lake" suite. "Tchaikovsky never made a suite of it, but I finally figured it out," he said. "With the other, I couldn't decide whether it was Schuman's 'New England Tryptich' or Ives's 'Three Places in New England.' It was Ives."

Music history has reported mysterious gifts in the past - Brahms, in concert, transposing into seven sharps to compensate for an out-of-tune piano, Liszt reducing the full score of Grieg's Piano Concerto to two hands at sight. Dr. Lintgen's talents perhaps serve music less nobly, if at all; but it is a gift almost Mozartean in its graceful infallibility, which allows a man to discern a New England landscape in the grooves of a long-playing record.