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Note: Research in this publication was not performed at Janelia.
Zebra finch song is represented in the high-level motor control nucleus high vocal center (HVC) (Reiner et al., 2004) as a sparse sequence of spike bursts. In contrast, the vocal organ is driven continuously by smoothly varying muscle control signals. To investigate how the sparse HVC code is transformed into continuous vocal patterns, we recorded in the singing zebra finch from populations of neurons in the robust nucleus of arcopallium (RA), a premotor area intermediate between HVC and the motor neurons. We found that highly similar song elements are typically produced by different RA ensembles. Furthermore, although the song is modulated on a wide range of time scales (10-100 ms), patterns of neural activity in RA change only on a short time scale (5-10 ms). We suggest that song is driven by a dynamic circuit that operates on a single underlying clock, and that the large convergence of RA neurons to vocal control muscles results in a many-to-one mapping of RA activity to song structure. This permits rapidly changing RA ensembles to drive both fast and slow acoustic modulations, thereby transforming the sparse HVC code into a continuous vocal pattern.