Tharaud was born in Paris to performance artists on December 12, 1968. His grandfather was a violinist, his mother taught dance at the Paris Opera, and his father participated in community operettas as a singer, then as a director. His parents started Tharaud on the piano at age five, and he enrolled at the Conservatoire de Paris at age 14. By the late 1980s, he had finished among the top three in several international piano competitions, including a second-place finish at the Munich International Competition in 1989.
In 1993, playing a 1926 Steinway D Concert Grand, Tharaud recorded Grieg: Lyric Pieces (Lyrische Stucke), released by Dante Productions. Two years later, he was joined by Darius' widow, Madeleine Mihaud, who acted as narrator on Milhaud: Piano Music. His other recordings in the 1990s included works by Poulenc, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, and, for the Arion label, the complete piano works of Emmanuel Chabrier. His more than a dozen albums in the 2000s included well-loved French composers like Ravel and Satie, as well as Schubert, Chopin, and 20th century composers such as Mauricio Kagel and Thierry Pécou. Tharaud premiered Pécou's first concerto in Paris in 2006, and collaborated with the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris for Thierry Pécou: L'Oiseau Innumérable, released by Harmonia Mundi in 2008. In the meantime, the pianist built an international reputation for mixing Baroque, Romantic, and contemporary works in his concerts, and for unusual programming, such as selecting pieces that include a singer or narrator. Director Michael Haneke featured Tharaud both onscreen and on the soundtrack of his Oscar-, BAFTA-, and Golden Globe-winning film Amour, released in 2012. The soundtrack followed on Virgin Classics in early 2013. Tharaud's subsequent piano recordings included albums such as 2015's Bach: Goldberg Variations and 2016's Tharaud Plays Rachmaninov. Also in 2016, Tharaud was named Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. In 2017, Erato released his tribute to French singer Barbara, which included duets with Juliette Binoche, Jane Birkin, and Vanessa Paradis, among other guest vocalists. While Tharaud was by then a well-established figure on the French charts, it marked his debut on the Swiss albums chart. Tharaud issued two albums in early 2020: Complices with Jean-Guihen Queyras, on Harmonia Mundi, and an Erato release of music by Gérard Pesson, Hans Abrahamsen, and Oscar Strasnoy.