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Brain Lang. 2010 Oct;115(1):69-80. doi: 10.1016/j.bandl.2009.11.003. Epub 2010 Feb 13.

Peripheral mechanisms for vocal production in birds - differences and similarities to human speech and singing.

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Department of Biology and National Center for Voice and Speech, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, 84112, USA.


Song production in songbirds is a model system for studying learned vocal behavior. As in humans, bird phonation involves three main motor systems (respiration, vocal organ and vocal tract). The avian respiratory mechanism uses pressure regulation in air sacs to ventilate a rigid lung. In songbirds sound is generated with two independently controlled sound sources, which reside in a uniquely avian vocal organ, the syrinx. However, the physical sound generation mechanism in the syrinx shows strong analogies to that in the human larynx, such that both can be characterized as myoelastic-aerodynamic sound sources. Similarities include active adduction and abduction, oscillating tissue masses which modulate flow rate through the organ and a layered structure of the oscillating tissue masses giving rise to complex viscoelastic properties. Differences in the functional morphology of the sound producing system between birds and humans require specific motor control patterns. The songbird vocal apparatus is adapted for high speed, suggesting that temporal patterns and fast modulation of sound features are important in acoustic communication. Rapid respiratory patterns determine the coarse temporal structure of song and maintain gas exchange even during very long songs. The respiratory system also contributes to the fine control of airflow. Muscular control of the vocal organ regulates airflow and acoustic features. The upper vocal tract of birds filters the sounds generated in the syrinx, and filter properties are actively adjusted. Nonlinear source-filter interactions may also play a role. The unique morphology and biomechanical system for sound production in birds presents an interesting model for exploring parallels in control mechanisms that give rise to highly convergent physical patterns of sound generation. More comparative work should provide a rich source for our understanding of the evolution of complex sound producing systems.

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