BACKGROUND: One major problem for cognitive neuroscience is to describe the interaction between stimulus and task driven neural modulation. We used fMRI to investigate this interaction in the human brain. Ten male subjects performed a passive listening and a semantic categorization task in a factorial design. In both tasks, words were presented auditorily at three different rates. RESULTS: We found: (i) as word presentation rate increased hemodynamic responses increased bilaterally in the superior temporal gyrus including Heschl's gyrus (HG), the planum temporale (PT), and the planum polare (PP); (ii) compared to passive listening, semantic categorization produced increased bilateral activations in the ventral inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and middle frontal gyrus (MFG); (iii) hemodynamic responses in the left dorsal IFG increased linearly with increasing word presentation rate only during the semantic categorization task; (iv) in the semantic task hemodynamic responses decreased bilaterally in the insula with increasing word presentation rates; and (v) in parts of the HG the hemodynamic response increased with increasing word presentation rates during passive listening more strongly. CONCLUSION: The observed "rate effect" in primary and secondary auditory cortex is in accord with previous findings and suggests that these areas are driven by low-level stimulus attributes. The bilateral effect of semantic categorization is also in accord with previous studies and emphasizes the role of these areas in semantic operations. The interaction between semantic categorization and word presentation in the left IFG indicates that this area has linguistic functions not present in the right IFG. Finally, we speculate that the interaction between semantic categorization and word presentation rates in HG and the insula might reflect an inhibition of the transfer of unnecessary information from the temporal to frontal regions of the brain.