Changes in inhibition during development are well documented, but the role of inhibition in adult learning-related plasticity is not understood. In songbirds, vocal recognition learning alters the neural representation of songs across the auditory forebrain, including the caudomedial nidopallium (NCM), a region analogous to mammalian secondary auditory cortices. Here, we block local inhibition with the iontophoretic application of gabazine, while simultaneously measuring song-evoked spiking activity in NCM of European starlings trained to recognize sets of conspecific songs. We find that local inhibition differentially suppresses the responses to learned and unfamiliar songs and enhances spike-rate differences between learned categories of songs. These learning-dependent response patterns emerge, in part, through inhibitory modulation of selectivity for song components and the masking of responses to specific acoustic features without altering spectrotemporal tuning. The results describe a novel form of inhibitory modulation of the encoding of learned categories and demonstrate that inhibition plays a central role in shaping the responses of neurons to learned, natural signals.