Many complex behaviours, like speech or music, have a hierarchical organization with structure on many timescales, but it is not known how the brain controls the timing of behavioural sequences, or whether different circuits control different timescales of the behaviour. Here we address these issues by using temperature to manipulate the biophysical dynamics in different regions of the songbird forebrain involved in song production. We find that cooling the premotor nucleus HVC (formerly known as the high vocal centre) slows song speed across all timescales by up to 45 per cent but only slightly alters the acoustic structure, whereas cooling the downstream motor nucleus RA (robust nucleus of the arcopallium) has no observable effect on song timing. Our observations suggest that dynamics within HVC are involved in the control of song timing, perhaps through a chain-like organization. Local manipulation of brain temperature should be broadly applicable to the identification of neural circuitry that controls the timing of behavioural sequences and, more generally, to the study of the origin and role of oscillatory and other forms of brain dynamics in neural systems.