“Pure tones” are a distinctive acoustic feature of many birdsongs. Recent research on songbird vocal physiology suggests that such tonal sounds result from a coordinated interaction between the syrinx and a vocal filter, as demonstrated by the emergence of harmonic overtones when a bird sings in helium. To investigate the communicative significance of vocal tract filtration in the production of birdsong, we used field playback experiments to compare the responses of male swamp sparrows Melospiza georgiana to normal songs and those same songs recorded in helium. We also measured responses to pure tone songs that had been shifted upward in frequency to match the average spectra of those songs with added harmonics. Male sparrows were significantly more responsive to the playback of normal songs than to either helium songs with added harmonics or frequency-shifted pure tone songs. Songs with harmonics retained a high degree of salience, however. We conclude that explanations for the occurrence of tonal sounds in birdsongs must consider perceptual attributes of songs as communicative signals, as well as problems of song production and transmission.