The vertebrate hindbrain includes neural circuits that govern essential functions including breathing, blood pressure and heart rate. Hindbrain circuits also participate in generating rhythmic motor patterns for vocalization. In most tetrapods, sound production is powered by expiration and the circuitry underlying vocalization and respiration must be linked. Perception and arousal are also linked; acoustic features of social communication sounds-for example, a baby's cry-can drive autonomic responses. The close links between autonomic functions that are essential for life and vocal expression have been a major in vivo experimental challenge. Xenopus provides an opportunity to address this challenge using an ex vivo preparation: an isolated brain that generates vocal and breathing patterns. The isolated brain allows identification and manipulation of hindbrain vocal circuits as well as their activation by forebrain circuits that receive sensory input, initiate motor patterns and control arousal. Advances in imaging technologies, coupled to the production of Xenopus lines expressing genetically encoded calcium sensors, provide powerful tools for imaging neuronal patterns in the entire fictively behaving brain, a goal of the BRAIN Initiative. Comparisons of neural circuit activity across species (comparative neuromics) with distinctive vocal patterns can identify conserved features, and thereby reveal essential functional components.