The cultural transmission of behaviour depends on the ability of the pupil to identify and emulate an appropriate tutor1–4. How the brain of the pupil detects a suitable tutor and encodes the behaviour of the tutor is largely unknown. Juvenile zebra finches readily copy the songs of the adult tutors that they interact with, but not the songs that they listen to passively through a speaker5,6, indicating that social cues generated by the tutor facilitate song imitation. Here we show that neurons in the midbrain periaqueductal grey of juvenile finches are selectively excited by a singing tutor and—by releasing dopamine in the cortical song nucleus HVC—help to encode the song representations of the tutor used for vocal copying. Blocking dopamine signalling in the HVC of the pupil during tutoring blocked copying, whereas pairing stimulation of periaqueductal grey terminals in the HVC with a song played through a speaker was sufficient to drive copying. Exposure to a singing tutor triggered the rapid emergence of responses to the tutor song in the HVC of the pupil and a rapid increase in the complexity of the song of the pupil, an early signature of song copying7,8. These findings reveal that a dopaminergic mesocortical circuit detects the presence of a tutor and helps to encode the performance of the tutor, facilitating the cultural transmission of vocal behaviour.
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