Acquisition of an Acoustic Template Leads to Refinement of Song Motor Gestures

Document Type


Publication Date



Vocal learning, a key behavior in human speech development, occurs only in a small number of animal taxa. Ontogeny of vocal behavior in humans and songbirds involves acquisition of an acoustic model, which guides the development of self-generated vocalizations (sensorimotor period). How vocal development proceeds in the absence of an acoustic model is largely unknown and cannot be studied directly in humans. Here we explored the effects of an acoustic model on song motor control by comparing peripheral motor gestures (respiration and syringeal muscles) of tutored birds with those of birds raised in acoustic isolation. Although the overall use of syringeal muscles during song was similar in both groups, tutored birds displayed enhanced temporal patterns of activation in respiratory and syringeal motor gestures. Muscle activation was more uniformly distributed throughout the song of tutored birds than that of untutored birds. Similarly, the respiratory effort was similar for both groups, but the expiratory pulses of song contained more modulations and temporal complexity in tutored birds. These results indicate that the acquisition of an acoustic template guides a refinement of experience-independent motor gestures by increasing temporal fine structure, but there is no difference in bilateral activation patterns for a given sound between the two groups. Nevertheless, these subtle temporal changes in muscle activation give rise to pronounced acoustic differences between the songs of the tutored and untutored birds. Experience with song during ontogeny therefore guides a more refined use of experience-independent motor programs.


Physics and Astronomy

Publication Title

Journal of Neurophysiology