Our ability to hear provides us with an incredibly rich source of information about the world around us and, through language and music, plays a hugely important role in human communication. The tiny disturbances in air molecules that constitute sound are detected by the ear and converted into a form that the brain can understand. The events that unfold in the brain enable us to recognise someone’s voice or a piece of music, to determine the direction from which it came, and to separate particular sounds from the many others that may be present at the same time. One of the most important properties of the brain – which is the topic of this talk – is its capacity to change the way in which sensory signals are processed over multiple timescales. By continually adjusting its own representations, behaviourally relevant aspects of sound are highlighted despite considerable variations in the range of sounds reaching the ears. Furthermore, “plasticity” in those representations provides the basis for learning language and musical training, and also offers the potential for recovery of function following hearing loss.