Enormous progress has been made in our understanding of adaptive plasticity in the central auditory system. Experiments on a range of species demonstrate that, in adults, the animal must attend to (i.e., respond to) a stimulus in order for plasticity to be induced, and the plasticity that is induced is specific for the acoustic feature to which the animal has attended. The requirement that an adult animal must attend to a stimulus in order for adaptive plasticity to occur suggests an essential role of neuromodulatory systems in gating plasticity in adults. Indeed, neuromodulators, particularly acetylcholine (ACh), that are associated with the processes of attention, have been shown to enable adaptive plasticity in adults. In juvenile animals, attention may facilitate plasticity, but it is not always required: during sensitive periods, mere exposure of an animal to an atypical auditory environment can result in large functional changes in certain auditory circuits. Thus, in both the developing and mature auditory systems substantial experience-dependent plasticity can occur, but the conditions under which it occurs are far more stringent in adults. We review experimental results that demonstrate experience-dependent plasticity in the central auditory representations of sound frequency, level and temporal sequence, as well as in the representations of binaural localization cues in both developing and adult animals.