The Atlantic: August, 2011
Books With Soundtracks: The Future of Reading?
There is a long-held belief about cinema: "There never was a silent film." From the early days, when moving images fascinated viewers in their mute spectacle, musical accompaniment drowned out the incessant whirring of the projector machine. Sound brought cinema's haunting figures into being, amplifying their moods and heightening the intensity of the action.
Reading, however, is silent by design. Unless readers add their own accompaniment. On any given public transit commute, one might find an audience of readers trying to do just that, headphones in, books open, providing soundtracks to literature. Mark Cameron noticed this on his daily ferry rides, and as he selected his own music-reading pairings, found himself choosing songs that emotionally corresponded to the words on the page. When he told his brother, the two started cooking up an idea for "a more cinematic-type experience" for reading, says Paul Cameron, who is now the CEO of the company they co-founded, Booktrack.
Over the course of about three years, the Cameron brothers set up a service to provide movie-like soundtracks for digital books, five of which are available now for download onto an iPhone or iPad. More titles will appear on Booktrack's virtual shelves in the coming weeks and months, and will eventually be accessible for Android, computers, and other e-reading devices. They'll be offering selected titles for free, but most will cost between $1 and $4.
Hundreds of files, each tagged with different categories of sound, are combined into a mix that accompanies books and short stories. The first full novel they released, The Power of Six, comes with over 70 original scores, ambient noise, and sound effects.
It takes about six weeks to produce the nine hour-long track for a typical book. Booktrack has a small in-house team, but the bulk of the labor is done at outside production companies like Park Road Post, which has won Academy Awards for sound mixing. Creative designers read each book and determine what music and sounds should be used, and where. It all comes together with a composer, an audio technician, and sometimes, a sound producer. Cameron said it was only natural to seek out sound experts from the film industry, and they try to work with writers when they can. The company is also preparing to publish Salman Rusdie's short story, "In the South," with a soundtrack developed out of conversations between the author and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
Booktrack hopes to create soundtracks for biographies, history books, textbooks-"Sort of the gamut," says Booktrack's VP of Publishing, Brooke Geahan. "We see the opportunity being limitless." She and Cameron pointed to a study they commissioned from Liel Leibovitz, a visiting assistant professor of communications at NYU, who found "significant cognitive advantages to sound-enhanced reading," compared with standard e-reading.
"It's almost like having your own personal conductor directing you as you're reading," Cameron explained.
This is both a thrilling prospect and a frustrating one. The sound is linked to the line of text for which it was composed, and as I begin reading a Sherlock Holmes mystery on my iPhone, an arrow in the right-hand margin slides down before my eyes can follow. I tap on the arrow, which is supposed to adjust the music to my reading pace, but from time to time it skips and the sound switches suddenly from a synth to a doorbell. If I turn back a page, it's like rewinding to an earlier spot on a record track.
After a bit of getting used to, the track flows relatively seamlessly. More than anything, it reminds me of a video game soundtrack. Violins play simple melodies on a repeated loop, interrupted at intervals by the atmospheric sounds of my location in the story-a fireplace, a clock.
"I honestly think Arthur Conan Doyle would have loved this," says Geahan.
The Power of Six has an eerier soundtrack, which suits this young adult sci-fi novel. As I read on, I begin to find myself immersed in the action as it's played out in the music, the hum of rain, and footsteps. If I read ahead of the track, I pause and listen. I wonder what might have played through my head had I read in silence.