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Humans and oscine songbirds share the rare capacity for vocal learning. Songbirds have the ability to acquire songs and calls of various rhythms through imitation. In several species, birds can even coordinate the timing of their vocalizations with other individuals in duets that are synchronized with millisecond-accuracy. It is not known, however, if songbirds can perceive rhythms holistically nor if they are capable of spontaneous entrainment to complex rhythms, in a manner similar to humans. Here we review emerging evidence from studies of rhythm generation and vocal coordination across songbirds and humans. In particular, recently developed experimental methods have revealed neural mechanisms underlying the temporal structure of song and have allowed us to test birds' abilities to predict the timing of rhythmic social signals. Surprisingly, zebra finches can readily learn to anticipate the calls of a “vocal robot” partner and alter the timing of their answers to avoid jamming, even in reference to complex rhythmic patterns. This capacity resembles, to some extent, human predictive motor response to an external beat. In songbirds, this is driven, at least in part, by the forebrain song system, which controls song timing and is essential for vocal learning. Building upon previous evidence for spontaneous entrainment in human and non-human vocal learners, we propose a comparative framework for future studies aimed at identifying shared mechanism of rhythm production and perception across songbirds and humans.


This article was originally published in frontiers in Human Neuroscience, available at doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00255.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY).



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