Both reward- and punishment-related stimuli are motivationally salient and attract the attention of animals. However, it remains unclear how motivational salience is processed in the brain. Here, we show that both reward- and punishment-predicting stimuli elicited robust bursting of many noncholinergic basal forebrain (BF) neurons in behaving rats. The same BF neurons also responded with similar bursting to primary reinforcement of both valences. Reinforcement responses were modulated by expectation, with surprising reinforcement eliciting stronger BF bursting. We further demonstrate that BF burst firing predicted successful detection of near-threshold stimuli. Together, our results point to the existence of a salience-encoding system independent of stimulus valence. We propose that the encoding of motivational salience by ensemble bursting of noncholinergic BF neurons may improve behavioral performance by affecting the activity of widespread cortical circuits and therefore represents a novel candidate mechanism for top-down attention.