The property of a neuron to phase-lock to an oscillatory stimulus before adapting its spike rate to the stimulus frequency plays an important role for the auditory system. We investigate under which conditions neurons exhibit this phase locking below rate threshold. To this end, we simulate neurons employing the widely used leaky integrate-and-fire (LIF) model. Tuning parameters, we can arrange either an irregular spontaneous or a tonic spiking mode. When the neuron is stimulated in both modes, a significant rise of vector strength prior to a noticeable change of the spike rate can be observed. Combining analytic reasoning with numerical simulations, we trace this observation back to a modulation of interspike intervals, which itself requires spikes to be only loosely coupled. We test the limits of this conception by simulating an LIF model with threshold fatigue, which generates pronounced anticorrelations between subsequent interspike intervals. In addition we evaluate the LIF response for harmonic stimuli of various frequencies and discuss the extension to more complex stimuli. It seems that phase locking below rate threshold occurs generically for all zero mean stimuli. Finally, we discuss our findings in the context of stimulus detection.

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