Sounds important: why audiobooks mean so much


Cameron Drew is VP of Publishing Partnerships at Booktrack. He considers himself to be a Digital Media Specialist, Start-up Junkie, and Friendly Canadian.

I work for Booktrack. Our mission today is to create cinematic style soundtracks for audiobooks. We believe that sound – music and ambient sound – has the power to amplify and consequently deepen the stories we are trying to tell.  We weren’t always in the Audiobook space (let’s call them aBooks going forward). Initially the idea was to combine music and sound effects with reading and that the sum of all of those parts would be more than without.

A couple of studies attempted to qualify this academically. The first, commissioned by Booktrack with the Faculty of Medical & Health Sciences along with the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, observed that with the addition of contextually selected music & sound effects, students not only retained more of the detail of what they were reading but that they comprehended the meaning of the text more readily – to the tune of 18% more readily. Qualified, that improvement equalled a WHOLE grade point on test scores. For those of you who know a teacher or librarian, ask them what they think of that statement.

Another study led by Leil Leibovitz, an Assistant Professor of Communications at NYU, focused upon the qualitative experience of 41 adults reading with and without ‘sound enhancement’.  Strong correlations between “focus”, “clarity”, and “understanding” consistently demonstrated themselves when sound was a part of the reading experience, leading to a conclusion that the study “clearly shows the distinct cognitive advantages of sound-enhanced electronic reading platforms”.  Again study subjects displayed higher retention and comprehension of text when combined with sound. Very simply – they ‘got it’ more. Music enabled more.

It’s a topic also explored by famed Neurologist Oliver Sacks. In his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Dr. Sacks places the intersection of the human brain, music, and late stage dementia patients under the observation and scrutiny afforded only to front line mental health care professionals. Time and again music was observed to essentially unlock previously unresponsive patients. It afforded them an opportunity to re-formulate themselves, to remember themselves.

Of music, Sacks said this: “Music, uniquely among the arts, is both abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but has the unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation”.

I think I get what he might have been meaning by this – it’s an idea that kicks up an early memory. As a child of the 80s, like many others, I suffered the great JAWS trauma of Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg. Not only did I develop an instant irrational fear of sharks and swimming in general but for the first time in my life I connected to this emotion and fear through music. What Sacks observed and shares with us is an idea of music as an emotional experience steeped in memory and a strong capacity to enable present connection – that we gain access to more through music because of the way it resonates emotionally.

Music seemingly affords us access to additional layers of feeling and of thought. It acts to amplify and make more clear sensory and cognitive data. It is an emotional experience with the capacity to convey a complexity of thoughts and feelings across time. And I would argue that the use of ‘ambient’ sound effects registers in a similar fashion.

But what does all of this have to do with aBooks? For me it boils down to the notion of an industry ethos. We are in the business of storytelling – quite literally a part of its machine.  It’s not an outrageous statement to also say that storytelling is an emotional experience. Often when people describe why they appreciate a story, the words used are charged and described emotionally – at least if we’ve done our jobs well. Is not our desire to connect more deeply with our audience, the pulse of what drives us forward?

It fascinates me that the data suggests that music has the potential to deepen comprehension, emotionally. It makes sense to me that music naturally positions itself to enhance the storytelling experience. But to be fair, I have drunk the Kool-Aid. Thankfully these aren’t my ideas alone.

So, long story short (and possibly the subject of another blog post), reading the tea leaves and following the trade winds, Booktrack pivoted out of eBooks and into the aBook space carrying with us a healthy dose of empiricism, and the idea of music and its subsequent emotional resonance as a means to connect more meaningfully with readers.  Adding music and sound effects to narration and how that might emotionally charge the experience of listening to an audiobook was suddenly obvious to us. And so, here we are.