How dynamic signalling and extensive tissue rearrangements interact to generate complex patterns and shapes during embryogenesis is poorly understood1, 2, 3. Here we characterize the signalling events taking place during early morphogenesis of chick skeletal muscles. We show that muscle progenitors present in somites require the transient activation of NOTCH signalling to undergo terminal differentiation. The NOTCH ligand Delta1 is expressed in a mosaic pattern in neural crest cells that migrate past the somites. Gain and loss of Delta1 function in neural crest modifies NOTCH signalling in somites, which results in delayed or premature myogenesis. Our results indicate that the neural crest regulates early muscle formation by a unique mechanism that relies on the migration of Delta1-expressing neural crest cells to trigger the transient activation of NOTCH signalling in selected muscle progenitors. This dynamic signalling guarantees a balanced and progressive differentiation of the muscle progenitor pool.