The effects of attention on the neural processes underlying auditory scene analysis were investigated through the manipulation of auditory task load. Participants were asked to focus their attention on tuned and mistuned stimuli presented to one ear and to ignore similar stimuli presented to the other ear. For both tuned and mistuned sounds, long (standard) and shorter (deviant) duration stimuli were presented in both ears. Auditory task load was manipulated by varying task instructions. In the easier condition, participants were asked to press a button for deviant sounds (target) at the attended location, irrespective of tuning. In the harder condition, participants were further asked to identify whether the targets were tuned or mistuned. Participants were faster in detecting targets defined by duration only than by both duration and tuning. At the unattended location, deviant stimuli generated a mismatch negativity wave at frontocentral sites whose amplitude decreased with increasing task demand. In comparison, standard mistuned stimuli generated an object-related negativity at central sites whose amplitude was not affected by task difficulty. These results show that the processing of sound sequences is differentially affected by attentional load than is the processing of sounds that occur simultaneously (i.e., sequential vs. simultaneous grouping processes), and that they each recruit distinct neural networks.

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