Pachelbel was born in August of 1653 and baptized on September 1. He showed musical talent early on and began studies first with Heinrich Schwemmer and later with George Kaspar Wecker, the latter instructing in composition and on organ. Pachelbel received his general education at St. Lorenz high school, and in 1669 he enrolled at the university in Altdorf. Pachelbel did not come from a wealthy family and earned meager sums serving as organist at the Lorenzkirche. He thus could not garner enough money to keep up with the tuition costs at the university and had to leave after about a year.
After a brief period of private study following his departure, Pachelbel traveled to Vienna and obtained an assistant organist post at St. Stephen's Cathedral in 1673. Four years later he took a position as court organist in Eisenach, where Bach would be born in 1685. He would become a close friend of the Bach family and teach both Johann Sebastian and Johann Christoph. Pachelbel left after a year at Eisenach however, and became organist at the Predigerkirche in Erfurt, in 1678.
The composer married Barbara Gabler in 1681, and by 1683 he was a father. In September of that year however, tragedy struck as a plague swept through Erfurt, taking his wife and infant son. Four sets of chorale variations appeared around this time under the title of Musicalische Sterbens-Gedancken (Musical Thoughts of Death). During this period his organ chorales would become his most important works.
In August 1684, Pachelbel married Judith Drommer. One of their seven children would be the composer, organist, and harpsichordist Wilhelm Hieronymus Pachelberg, born 1686. In 1690 Pachelbel took a post as Court organist at Stuttgart and appeared quite satisfied, but left after two years due to an impending invasion by French forces. He served next as municipal organist at Gotha, from the fall of 1692 until April 1695. He returned to Nuremberg around the latter time, eventually to become organist at St. Sebalduskirche (summer, 1695). He would serve for nearly 11 years in this post, producing his most famous vocal scores, as well as his great Magnificat fugues. In 1699 he produced his important collection of six arias, Hexachordum Apollinis, for organ or harpsichord. Pachelbel was buried in Nuremberg on March 9, 1706, and apparently had died on March 3.