Excitatory and inhibitory synapses are the brain’s most abundant synapse types. However, little is known about their formation during critical periods of motor skill learning, when sensory experience defines a motor target that animals strive to imitate. In songbirds, we find that exposure to tutor song leads to elimination of excitatory synapses in HVC (used here as a proper name), a key song generating brain area. A similar pruning is associated with song maturation, because juvenile birds have fewer excitatory synapses, the better their song imitations. In contrast, tutoring is associated with rapid insertion of inhibitory synapses, but the tutoring-induced structural imbalance between excitation and inhibition is eliminated during subsequent song maturation. Our work suggests that sensory exposure triggers the developmental onset of goal-specific motor circuits by increasing the relative strength of inhibition and it suggests a synapse-elimination model of song memorization.