Researchers Show How Songbird Singing is Similar to Human Vocalization

You might not expect that there is much in common between the way a songbird sings and how humans sing and vocalize, but according to new research from Emory University, a songbird’s vocal muscles work like those of human speakers and singers, a study of Bengalese finches shows.

Each of the birds’ vocal muscles can change its function to help produce different parameters of sounds, in a manner similar to that of a trained opera singer.

“Our research suggests that producing really complex song relies on the ability of the songbirds’ brains to direct complicated changes in combinations of muscles,” says Samuel Sober, a biologist at Emory University and lead author of the study in the Journal of Neuroscience. “In terms of vocal control, the bird brain appears as complicated and wonderful as the human brain.”

Pitch, for example, is important to songbird vocalization, but there is no single muscle devoted to controlling it. “They don’t just contract one muscle to change pitch,” Sober says. “They have to activate a lot of different muscles in concert, and these changes are different for different vocalizations. Depending on what syllable the bird is singing, a particular muscle might increase pitch or decrease pitch.”

Previous research has revealed some of the vocal mechanisms within the human “voice box,” or larynx. The larynx houses the vocal cords and an array of muscles that help control pitch, amplitude and timbre.

Although birds don’t have a larynx, we explore how their very interesting vocal organ works and it similarity to our larynx on the next page…