One of my favourite activities is being curled up on the sofa in front of the roaring fire as the rain patters on the window, reading an engrossing book. It’s ultimately a solitary activity. It’s ultimately a silent activity too, isn’t it? Perhaps not, claims Paul Cameron, CEO of BookTrack, an app that pairs books with soundtracks. He’s not the only one to think so either. Soundtracked books are on the rise and the BookTrack app has 2.5 million users worldwide. In the UK alone, usage of BookTrack has increased thirteen-fold since July this year[1]. As the ebook share in book sales dropped in 2015 (perhaps as a result of the glut of adult colouring books that took the world by storm), soundtracked books promise a new and inventive way for readers to enjoy a book, and an extra download (3)revenue stream for publishers. Surveys show that around ten per cent of people are willing to pay extra for interactive ebook features, after all[2]. The question is though, is it here to stay, or is just a fad?

Whole New World

The BookTrack app is more intelligent than Crackling_Fire.jpga simple soundtrack, and it plays more than basic background music. In fact, it plays sounds that relate to the tale – the creaking floorboards or the crackling fire, for example – and the app measures your reading speed, so the sounds are played in the right places. The technology works too (I couldn’t resist trying it out). Cameron explains that they “have created a new entertainment medium that has not been encountered, […] books are the only medium without synchronised sound but it really lifts the experience.”[3] It acts much like the soundtracks of films then, underscoring the emotional elements of the images[4]. After all, even silent films were accompanied by an orchestra playing in the cinema.

Or A Growth From the Old

51d+bous1mL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgIt’s not the first of its kind, though. Read-along children’s books have been around for years, just like The Little Fat Policeman. There are have been other attempts at this too, with authors putting playlists to their books – songs that go hand-in-hand with the tale. The difference is, BookTrack is not simply related songs that can be listened to in conjunction to a novel or an audiobook to read along to, but rather, the soundtracks are to be played simultaneously and may not make sense without the book.

“It’s almost like having your own personal conductor” to direct you as you read, Cameron explains[5]; although for me, I wonder if that sort of defies the point of reading. One of the great joys of a good book is that your mind creates the images, the sounds, the sights, and the smells. You are free to let your imagination wander. Or are you?

Total Immersion

The thing about reading, of course, is that it is always directed. The author guides you along a path that they have pre-destined. The author describes the characters, the places, those sights, sounds, and smells. So what is so different about them adding a soundtrack to make it more real? And from my own experience, it really is immersive.

I’ll be honest, the whole experience took me a little while to get into. The fact that the doorbell went, setting the dogs off, didn’t help at all but still, I found myself listening to the sounds and focussing on the track instead of reading the words in front of me. Once I got into it though, and once I’d learned to almost ignore the sounds pouring through my headphones, I began to embrace it. I was immersed. As the characters were caught up in a sandstorm, so I heard the swishing of the sand and the hissing of the snakes. I was part of that very sandstorm. It was engrossing, and I’ll definitely be trying it again.

BookTrack screenshot

Distractions

In fact, once I got through the initial page or two, the soundtrack is not nearly as distracting as I had supposed it would be. I would even go so far as to say it helped me focus further, sharpening the images in my mind – and the research backs that up. A study conducted at the New York University, Reading with Sound, showed that concentration levels actually benefit from an immersive experience such as the one this app offers. Similarly, BookTrack, who has 12,000 schools signed up to its classroom service, shows that pupils using the app read for 30 per cent longer than those reading books without a soundtrack, and what’s more, they score an average of 17 per cent higher on comprehension tests[6]. The noise is not so off-putting after all, then.

The App

It’s a great app too. There are plenty of books to choose from, many of which are free too, although I couldn’t find any major current names on there yet. I started listening to Sand by Hugh Howey and The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. There are a few oddball books on there too, like Puberty for Girls, a little three page document complete with a jazzy little number in the background but that is a quirk (or gem?) of the self-publishing revolution.

Screenshot 2

The app is available on iOS and Android although, like most things, not on Windows Phone (probably because that’s the one I’ve got), so it’s widely available too. It’s an exciting little find, this app, and I can see it being massively successful – it’s new, it’s inventive, it’s immersive, and it brings reading into the modern age. But still…

The Uncomfortable Feeling

I’ll be honest, I liked the experience of a soundtracked book much more than I was expecting to. I’ll definitely try it again. But still…there is just something, some slightly uncomfortable feeling that I just can’t overcome. I don’t know whether I’m a traditionalist. An old-fogey stuck in the mud. Probably, but to me, as enjoyable an experience as it is, it can never entirely take the place of simple reading in which it is your mind doing the immersing, not a synthetic, synthesised soundtrack. As bloggerfilm-145099_960_720.png David Gutowski said, “once you add music to a book and as one piece of art, I don’t know if you can call that a book anymore. It’s more of a multimedia experience.” The only thing left to do to these books would be to add some moving pictures and…oh…


[1] Alex Lawson, 2015, Are Soundtracked Books a Stunt or the Future of Ebooks? [accessed 12/01/2015]
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Joanna Penn, 2014, BookTrack: Why Soundtracked Books are Great for Readers and Authors [accessed: 02/01/2014]
[5] Betsy Morais, 2011, Books With Soundtracks: The Future of Reading?  [accessed 02/01/2015]
[6] Ibid.

3 thoughts on “When Reading Requires Headphones: The Rise of the Soundtracked Book

  1. I’ve never heard of this before, but it sounds like a cool idea. Maybe I’ll give it a try, but I don’t even listen to audio books all that much.

    1. No, I don’t really listen to audiobooks either. My issue is that the app is unavailable on my phone, and my Kindle is so old that it doesn’t support them haha! Reading on my laptop isn’t ideal, so I don’t think I’ll get a true experience, which is a shame, but still, I think it’s definitely worth a go.

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