Earle Brown was born in Lunenberg, a farm town in Worcester County in central Massachusetts. He picked up the trumpet at age 10 and led a small dance band through high school. While at Northeastern University in Boston, studying engineering and mathematics, Brown played weekends in a "territory" jazz band. He joined the Air Force to become a pilot, but wound up in an Army band unit. Therein Brown met a fellow player who sparked his interest in the Joseph Schillinger method of musical composition. After Brown was discharged, he embarked on four years of study at Schillinger House in Boston (now Berklee School of Music) under Brogue Henning. His earliest works, such as the Music for Violin, Cello and Piano, are 12-tone based and make use of methods derived from the Schillinger system.
In 1951, in Denver Earle Brown first met composer John Cage. Cage invited Brown to move to New York City the following year. Earle Brown worked with Cage and David Tudor in the Project for Music for Magnetic Tape. During that time, Brown created a key pioneering electronic work, the Octet for Eight Loudspeakers, the first piece of musique concrète to be executed in multi-track stereo. Later that year, Brown worked on a series of compositions entitled Folio that one by one began to reduce certain elements of notation. In December, 1952 Brown dispensed with conventional notation altogether, utilizing instead a simple graph as the composition with instructions for performance. December, 1952 is recognized as a landmark work of the 1950s, as it introduced graphic notation, which would soon be widely adopted into the mainstream of the avant-garde.
Brown is often lumped together with Cage, Tudor, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff as the "New York School." This is a convenient handle used to identify New York composers of the 1950s who were, in approach, seen as analogous in music to the Abstract Expressionist style of painting then current among New York-based artists. They were all friends, and it is true that Jackson Pollock and his drip canvases provided a major source of inspiration to Earle Brown, as did the spindly mobiles of Alexander Calder. But to lump Brown in with any specific era or style does not do him justice. In later compositions he moved into realms where he took greater amounts of the music back, and put the ordering of the material into the hands of the a conductor. In 1964, Brown and Leonard Bernstein both conducted the premiere of his Available Forms I with the New York Philharmonic, and Brown since composed several large-scale orchestral works. At the other end of the spectrum, some Brown pieces are completely notated and only a few seconds in length.
Earle Brown took a very active role in personally attending to performances and recordings of his own music. Brown enjoyed composer residencies at Cologne, Basle, the University of California at Los Angeles, the California Institute of the Arts, University of Southern California, the University of California at Berkeley, Peabody, University of Cincinnati, Indiana University in Bloomington, the American Academy at Rome, and at Yale. The Peabody Institute of Music awarded Brown an honorary Doctorate of Music in 1970; he also received a Guggenheim Fellowship and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Brown said "I have certainly never been embarrassed by writing a beautiful melody, a very lyrical passage, or what I consider a beautiful chord progression. But I'm also interested in activating the interaction between composers and performers, and making music a more collaborative world -- not in all cases, but some."