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The potential of Rayleigh wave spectroscopy for the in-depth reconstruction of elastic properties of multilayers for materials with a continuous profile of elastic properties is explored. Two models to calculate the surface acoustic wave (SAW) dispersion spectrum from the profile of the elastic parameters are elaborated and compared. It is found that the relevant elastic parameters for Rayleigh wave dispersion in multilayers are the “effective” Rayleigh velocities, i.e., the Rayleigh velocities calculated for virtually semi-infinite layers. For the solution of the inverse problem, a neural network and a singular value decomposition model are proposed and tested on simulated SAW spectra. The reconstruction techniques are applied to reconstruct the elastic depth profile of shot-peened steel samples from laser-generated and laser-detected SAW data. © 2000 American Institute of Physics.