Neurons in the primary auditory cortex are tuned to the intensity and specific frequencies of sounds, but the synaptic mechanisms underlying this tuning remain uncertain. Inhibition seems to have a functional role in the formation of cortical receptive fields, because stimuli often suppress similar or neighbouring responses, and pharmacological blockade of inhibition broadens tuning curves. Here we use whole-cell recordings in vivo to disentangle the roles of excitatory and inhibitory activity in the tone-evoked responses of single neurons in the auditory cortex. The excitatory and inhibitory receptive fields cover almost exactly the same areas, in contrast to the predictions of classical lateral inhibition models. Thus, although inhibition is typically as strong as excitation, it is not necessary to establish tuning, even in the receptive field surround. However, inhibition and excitation occurred in a precise and stereotyped temporal sequence: an initial barrage of excitatory input was rapidly quenched by inhibition, truncating the spiking response within a few (1-4) milliseconds. Balanced inhibition might thus serve to increase the temporal precision and thereby reduce the randomness of cortical operation, rather than to increase noise as has been proposed previously.