His initial education was at the Horace Mann School and at Harvard, where he obtained a B.A. in English, in 1930; two years later, he got his M.A. in Music, after studies with Walter Piston and Gustav Holst. He also received early encouragement from Charles Ives. From Harvard, he went to Paris, studying at the Ecole Normale de Musique and taking private lessons with Nadia Boulanger. Carter had an interest in modern music almost from the beginning (in fact, he once said that he took his degrees at Harvard so he could be near the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which under Serge Koussevitzky's direction was performing a broad range of contemporary compositions at the time). But he also sang in a madrigal group and conducted choral concerts in Paris, and pursued interests in mathematics, literature, and languages.
After his return to the U.S., he served as the musical director of the Ballet Caravan from 1937 to 1939. From 1940 on, Carter held an impressive variety of teaching posts at, among others, St. John's College, Annapolis (1940-1942); the Peabody Conservatory (1946-1948); Columbia University (1948-1950); Queen's College, New York (1955-1956); Yale University (1960-1962); the American Academy in Rome (1963 and 1967); and the Juilliard School (1972). Carter was also the recipient of many honors and awards, including honorary doctorates from almost a dozen universities, many foundation grants, a Prix de Rome, two Guggenheim fellowships, and Pulitzer Prizes for his second (1960) and third (1973) string quartets.
His ballet Pocahontas, written for the Ballet Caravan, and the Holiday Overture (1944) are representative of Carter's early style, a fusion of Igor Stravinsky's neo-Classicism and the American populism of Aaron Copland. In the mid-'40s, however, Carter decided that the style he had employed to that point avoided some important modes of expression. Subsequent works, such as the 1946 Piano Sonata and the 1948 Cello Sonata, employ more dissonance and rhythmic complexity. Carter developed his notion of "metrical modulation," in which one tempo leads gradually to another through changing the note values in different voices of the ensemble. One starts to hear this process in the String Quartet No. 1 (1951), and colorful works like the Variations for Orchestra (1954-1955), the Double Concerto (1961) and the Quartet No. 2 develop those ideas further. Carter also occasionally developed dramatic scenarios for his compositions. The Quartet No. 3, for example, pits two duos (violin/viola and violin/cello) against one another as they play in different tempos and rhythms; Claus Adam of the Juilliard Quartet, which premiered the work, called it the most difficult work the quartet had ever played.
Carter went on to write a total of five quartets, along with a variety of symphonic works, concertos, chamber and solo pieces and, in the late '70s and early '80s, a handful of vocal works. He continued to be productive: Carter's Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei (1993-1996), which he completed at the age of 88, was received with great enthusiasm. Carter astounded the music world by creating his first opera, What Next? (1998), at the age of 90. Elliott Carter died at his home in Greenwich Village on November 5, 2012; he was 103 years old.