That time vinyl almost mixed with the paranormal

Special Features / May 15, 2014

Former magician James (The Amazing) Randi has dedicated the majority of his life to proving people wrong. His Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, paired with his Educational Foundation, offers up the million dollar prize to anyone who can demonstrate a paranormal ability, a contest beginning around 40 years ago and initially marked at only $1,000. And as that prize has grown, no one has yet claimed it, an obvious side effect of Randi considering himself a psychic and paranormal investigator, as well.

But he’s certainly encountered those with abilities we’d consider abnormal, such as Dr. Arthur Lintgen. According to The Los Angeles Times, Lintgen and Randi would meet in 1982, after news had spread that Lintgen could properly identify music on a vinyl record just by examining the groove pattern on the surface. Sent out by Time Magazine to investigate the claim, Randi would put the Pennsylvania-based physician through a controlled scientific experiment, arranging a series of “popular recordings,” while then having covered “the labels and matrix numbers, [and] slipped them into unmarked jackets.”

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.

The Los Angeles Times/October 19th, 1987

Lintgen would identify each of the classical recordings (his expertise) put in front of him, while he could identify the genre of a spoken word record and labeled an Alice Cooper LP as “disorganized and gibberish.”

Earlier, in 1981, Lintgen would be put to the test in a more familiar setting: Abington Hospital, near Philadelphia. In this, Lintgen would once again be faced with records that had covered labels and matrix numbers. According to The New York Times, he would take 20 LPs in a row, while correctly identifying both piece and composer successfully. The buzz would net him an appearance on ABC’s That’s Incredible program (going 20 for 20 in a demonstration), along with a spot on The Paul Daniels Magic Show, which you can actually check out below. Lintgen’s spot begins at the 22:45 mark.

So. How did he do it? Instead of possessing paranormal abilities, Lintgen was a “dedicated audiophile,” especially within “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.

The New York Times/November 19th, 1981

And he didn’t stumble upon these abilities in any vision, hallucination or quest, but instead at a friend’s party. When friends of his commented on his vast knowledge of the classical music world, they would say, “I’ll bet you can read the grooves of records,” and minutes later, he was doing just that. And all with what he described as bad eyesight.

So back to Randi and his challenge. Lintgen would continue to astonish the skeptic, not only naming Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps,” but also correctly identifying the version as one which a German orchestra had performed. But when asked to explain his talents, his reasoning was purely physical, citing things he’d see like an upturned edge, “a long undulating groove,” and several other factors.

So not paranormal, not spiritual, just abnormal. But still amazing.

Christopher Lantinen
Chris Lantinen is the owner and editor-in-chief of Modern Vinyl. Along with his modest collection of sad sounding records, he collects his share of soundtracks and previously adored indie up-and-comers. Chris is currently a professor of journalism and public relations at Edinboro University in the Erie, Pennsylvania area.