Abstract When, where and from whom young songbirds learn their songs have been controversial issues in the study of song development. We chose to study some of these issues in two migratory and closely related songbirds, the chipping sparrow, Spizella passerina , and field sparrow, Spizella pusilla . Nestlings of both species were collected in western Massachusetts and hand-reared in the laboratory. There, juveniles were placed in separate cages and assigned to one of three rooms; in each room were eight young chipping sparrows, eight young field sparrows and two adult tutors of each species, arranged so that most of the young males were adjacent to adult tutors of the same species. During mid-winter, adult tutors were moved from one room to another, so that the young birds heard different song types from different tutors during their hatching year and the following spring. From spectral analysis of our extensive tape recordings, we found that most juvenile males imitated the songs of their hatching-year tutors but then gradually modified their songs to match more closely either their adult tutors or other pupils the next spring. One chipping and one field sparrow clearly imitated a new song syllable from a spring live tutor; that is, these yearling males learned songs by ‘instruction’. Other sparrows improvised extensively, and one chipping sparrow learned a field sparrow's song syllable. Our results reveal great individual variation in how songs are developed, and we expect similar flexibility among birds in nature.