The vibration response of the basilar membrane in the cochlea to sinusoidal excitation displays a compressive nonlinearity, conventionally described using an input-output level curve. This displays a slope of 1 dB/dB at low levels and a slope in < 1 dB/dB at higher levels. Two classes of nonlinear systems have been considered as models of this response, one class with static power-law nonlinearity and one class with level-dependent properties (using either an automatic gain control or a Van der Pol oscillator). By carefully choosing their parameters, it is shown that all models can produce level curves that are similar to those measured on the basilar membrane. The models differ, however, in their distortion properties, transient responses, and instantaneous input-output characteristics. The static nonlinearities have a single-valued instantaneous characteristic that is the same at all input levels. The level-dependent systems are multi-valued with an almost linear characteristic, for a given amplitude of excitation, whose slope varies with the excitation level. This observation suggests that historical attempts to use functional modeling (i.e., Wiener of Volterra series) may be ill founded, as these methods are unable to represent level-dependent nonlinear systems with multi-valued characteristics of this kind. (c) 2005 Acoustical Society of America.