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The Groove Reader

Did you ever think about the possibility of “reading” record grooves? Well, neither did I until my wife and I attended a New Year’s Eve party with several physician colleagues and their wives around 1980. The conversation got around to my knowledge of music and its structure, and I jokingly said that I could probably read the grooves on a classical record. So, they started to show me LPs, and I repeatedly identified the music by merely looking at the grooves (the record labels carefully covered up, of course). I had never given it any thought or consciously tried to identify a piece of music by looking at the grooves until that night.

Needless to say, this spread around the hospital like wildfire. One of my colleagues had a patient who was a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. When the patient heard about my groove reading, he immediately wanted to tell his fellow orchestra members. Musicians seem to be most amazed by this “talent.”

At this time, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra played a series of concerts at the Temple University Ambler campus (Ambler is a suburb of Philadelphia). So they invited me to meet the members of the orchestra backstage following a performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony (thus assuring that the whole orchestra would be there). Visualize an amusing and unprecedented scene with a bespectacled music lover and audiophile standing in front of the entire orchestra, and each musician holding an LP with its label covered.

They were not disappointed. Time and again I identified their records, climaxing with my correct identification of Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony after a quick look at its grooves (this was actually quite easy, because of the work’s extreme dynamics).

The ability to identify a piece of music by examining the grooves of an LP is perhaps unique, and equally useless in the real world, but it has provided many enjoyable moments. If you look at an LP in good lighting, it will become immediately apparent that the grooves look different, varying from a light and shiny silvery shade to deep black. No two records are the same, as is the case with fingerprints. Pattern recognition is dependent on several factors: the gradation of volume, dynamic range, and the frequency response of the music and instruments. For example, soft music passages look different than loud ones, and there are an infinite number of gradations in between. Violins, cellos, and brass instruments all have different groove patterns. Loud percussion transients cut jagged grooves that have a very specific appearance and, as audiophiles know, are often very difficult for a stylus to track. A soft passage usually looks black, and a full orchestral climax is silvery when observed tangentially in good lighting. Obviously, the better the recording and the wider the dynamic range, the easier it is to read a groove pattern. For example, Mercurys and Telarcs are invariably easy to read.

Apply all of this to an extensive knowledge of the structure of music and an audiophile’s knowledge of the physical properties of records, and you may be the next groove reader! Some people think it’s almost magical, but I view it as quite ordinary when you apply these criteria.

Following the appearance with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, numerous newspaper and magazine articles appeared, culminating with an invitation to do my thing on British TV (the BBC). Little did I know that their plan was to have Sir Georg Solti appear with me on stage with the mystery records. Solti’s dynamic personality and increasing excitement every time I identified a record made the show very successful. He just could not believe that I was able to do it every time. The high point came when a representative of Decca records presented Solti, to his surprise, with a special pressing commemorating his role as conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The record had a picture of Solti on one side and the orchestra on the other side clearly visible beneath the grooves. Solti then handed me the record, and I correctly identified Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.

Many people have regarded Solti as a hard-driving automaton. I found him to be the exact opposite. He put me completely at ease on stage. Afterwards, there was a party for everyone involved in the show. Solti and his wife were utterly charming as they hosted my wife, two children, and me. They treated us as if we were their best friends, thus providing a fitting end to a memorable night.

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