Columbia University in the City of New York

This Pianist Learns with Songbirds

Meet Graduate Student Jonathan Kasdin, Neurobiology and Behavior Program

Practice makes perfect — for people and for birds. Graduate student Jonathan Kasdin has been studying juvenile finches rehearsing songs learned from their fathers, a project that reminds him all too well of the many hours he spent at the piano when younger. By analyzing the activity of groups of brain cells, he’s trying to determine whether a surge in dopamine that the Gadagkar lab has noticed during this process helps these birds to select the right syllables to sing. For Kasdin, uncovering this basic biology could move us closer to understanding how we learn language. And it could unlock dopamine-related disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

Photos by Thomas Barlow




Zebra finches have become a popular animal model for studying language.


The stripes in this spectrogram display the frequencies in a bird’s song.


A finch’s brain is labeled with fluorescent molecules.


A microscope reveals the details of brain tissue samples.


Grad students Kasdin and Nathan Nadler prepare to play a bird’s own songs back to him.