Vocal communicators discriminate conspecific vocalizations from other sounds and recognize the vocalizations of individuals. To identify neural mechanisms for the discrimination of such natural sounds, we compared the linear spectro-temporal tuning properties of auditory midbrain and forebrain neurons in zebra finches with the statistics of natural sounds, including song. Here, we demonstrate that ensembles of auditory neurons are tuned to auditory features that enhance the acoustic differences between classes of natural sounds, and among the songs of individual birds. Tuning specifically avoids the spectro-temporal modulations that are redundant across natural sounds and therefore provide little information; rather, it overlaps with the temporal modulations that differ most across sounds. By comparing the real tuning and a less selective model of spectro-temporal tuning, we found that the real modulation tuning increases the neural discrimination of different sounds. Additionally, auditory neurons discriminate among zebra finch song segments better than among synthetic sound segments.