Premotor circuits help generate imitative behaviors and can be activated during observation of another animal's behavior, leading to speculation that these circuits participate in sensory learning that is important to imitation. Here we tested this idea by focally manipulating the brain activity of juvenile zebra finches, which learn to sing by memorizing and vocally copying the song of an adult tutor. Tutor song-contingent optogenetic or electrical disruption of neural activity in the pupil's song premotor nucleus HVC prevented song copying, indicating that a premotor structure important to the temporal control of birdsong also helps encode the tutor song. In vivo multiphoton imaging and neural manipulations delineated a pathway and a candidate synaptic mechanism through which tutor song information is encoded by premotor circuits. These findings provide evidence that premotor circuits help encode sensory information about the behavioral model before shaping and executing imitative behaviors.