With a background in the music industry (he's worked with Blue Öyster Cult, Chris Isaak and the Grateful Dead, and was president of new-wave label 415 Records before its buyout by Sony), Levitin starts with an aficionado's passion for music and explains the circuitous route that brought him around to studying the subject scientifically. Like many popular science books, there is an affable , avuncular quality to Levitin's prose, which includes analogies between scientific concepts and daily experience, a smattering of puns and the inevitable mention of Phineas Gage.
Once Levitin explains the basic science of music, he moves on to music and the brain. It is fascinating stuff. One of the most interesting areas is Levitin's discussion of how music and language both use similar areas of the brain, parts of the brain that seem to seek out structure and patterns. In other words, the grammar of music.
The appreciation we have for music is intimately related to our ability to learn the underlying structure of the music we like—the equivalent to grammar in spoken or signed languages—and to be able to make predictions about what will come next. Composers imbue music with emotion by knowing what our expectations are and then very deliberately controlling when those expectations will be met, and when they won't. The thrills, chills, and tears we experience from music are the result of having our expectations artfully manipulated by a skilled composer and the musicians who interpret that music.
Later, Levitin notes that
The close proximity of music and speech processing in the frontal and temporal lobes, and their partial overlap, suggests that those neural circuits that become recruited for music and language may start out life undifferentiated. Experience and normal development then differentiate the functions of what began as very similar neuronal populations. Consider that at a very early age, babies are thought to be synesthetic, to be be unable to differentiate the input from the different senses, and to experience life and the world as a sort of psychedelic union of everything sensory. Babies may see the number five as red, taste cheddar cheeses in D-flat, and smell roses in triangles.
We tend to take communication — language — for granted once we acquire it; for most of us, music just is in the same way. It is fascinating and reassuring that science seems to indicate that this is more than mere coincidence. To our brains, it may be that music is just another language that we learn to understand.