Studies of functional brain imaging in humans and single cell recordings in monkeys have generally shown preferential involvement of the medially located supplementary motor area (SMA) in self-initiated movement and the lateral premotor cortex in externally cued movement. Studies of event-related cortical potentials recorded during movement preparation, however, generally show increased cortical activity prior to self-initiated movements but little activity at early stages prior to movements that are externally cued at unpredictable times. In this study, the spatial location and relative timing of activation for self-initiated and externally triggered movements were examined using rapid event-related functional MRI. Twelve healthy right-handed subjects were imaged while performing a brief finger sequence movement (three rapid alternating button presses: index-middle-index finger) made either in response to an unpredictably timed auditory cue (between 8 to 24 s after the previous movement) or at self-paced irregular intervals. Both movement conditions involved similar strong activation of medial motor areas including the pre-SMA, SMA proper, and rostral cingulate cortex, as well as activation within contralateral primary motor, superior parietal, and insula cortex. Activation within the basal ganglia was found for self-initiated movements only, while externally triggered movements involved additional bilateral activation of primary auditory cortex. Although the level of SMA and cingulate cortex activation did not differ significantly between movement conditions, the timing of the hemodynamic response within the pre-SMA was significantly earlier for self-initiated compared with externally triggered movements. This clearly reflects involvement of the pre-SMA in early processes associated with the preparation for voluntary movement.