Somitic and head mesoderm contribute to cartilage and bone and deliver the entire skeletal musculature. Studies on avian somite patterning and cell differentiation led to the view that these processes depend solely on cues from surrounding tissues. However, evidence is accumulating that some developmental decisions depend on information within the somitic tissue itself. Moreover, recent studies established that head and somitic mesoderm, though delivering the same tissue types, are set up to follow their own, distinct developmental programmes. With a particular focus on the chicken embryo, we review the current understanding of how extrinsic signalling, operating in a framework of intrinsically regulated constraints, controls paraxial mesoderm patterning and cell differentiation.