Auditory foreground–background decomposition is a pattern recognition process which combines simultaneous and sequential grouping in complex sound sequences. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging with reduced scanner noise and stimulation through a new type of earphones, we investigated the possibility that this process activates topographically distinct areas of human auditory cortex. A basic matching-to-sample task with variable tones (sequential grouping) caused significant activity in three separate landmark-related territories on the supratemporal plane. A similar task in the presence of a strongly masking acoustic background pattern to challenge simultaneous grouping led to the distinction of the subterritory in which foreground signal-related or task-related signal properties were exclusively seen. In contrast to the remainder of territories the level of activity and the periodicity of the signal time-course was resistant to the masking influence of the background.
This suggests that auditory foreground–background decomposition involves a specialized non-primary auditory cortex field. Generally, the findings demonstrate functional parcellation of auditory cortex for which the evidence in humans, in contrast to other primates, is only indirect to date.