Kodály was born in Kecskemét, Hungary, on December 16, 1882. Although born into a musical family, his early interests were towards literary studies. As his father was a railway official, the Kodály family had a rather peripatetic existence: from 1884 until 1891 they lived in Galánta (later to be immortalised in the orchestral dances Kodály based on folk music from the area), then moving to Nagyszombat (now Trnava, Slovakia), where Zoltán studied violin and piano and sang in the cathedral choir – an early introduction to the importance of choral singing. He explored the scores in the cathedral music library, and taught himself the cello to make up the numbers for his father’s domestic quartet-evenings. From a young age he was already composing: in 1897 the school orchestra played an overture of his, to be followed by a Mass for chorus and orchestra a year later.
In 1900, Kodály studied modern languages at the University of Sciences in Budapest, but the call of music eventually proved too strong. He enrolled at the Academy of Music in 1906, later completing a PhD with a thesis entitled: "The Strophic Structure of Hungarian Folk-Songs". He was now composing prolifically and his interest in Hungarian folk songs took him on many field trips to the Hungarian country side, where he collected folk songs with his close friend Béla Bartók. Though they published their first joint collection early on, it was not until 1951 that their comprehensive critical edition of Hungarian folk songs appeared.
After gaining a PhD in philosophy and linguistics, Kodály went to Paris where he studied with Charles Widor and discovered the music of Claude Debussy. On his return to Budapest in 1907 he was appointed a professor at the prestigious Liszt Academy where he taught music theory and composition. Kodály was to teach there for most of his life and upon his retirement as a professor, he returned as the Director of the Academy in 1945.
Outside Hungary, Kodály's compositions began to make headway around 1910 and were influenced by concerts in which Bartók and Kodály presented their music. The real breakthrough came in 1923 with a commission to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the union of the cities of Buda and Pest. The result was the Psalmus Hungaricus, a powerful setting of a sixteenth-century Hungarian version of Psalm LV. This established Kodály both as a national cultural leader, and a figure of international standing. The first of the two operas which followed, Háry János (1926) and the Spinning Room (1932), yielded a suite that soon became internationally popular, as did the orchestral Dances of Marosszék (1930) and Dances of Galánta (1933), all presenting an authentic Hungarian national idiom in a manner that allowed it international prominence. His other orchestral works include a Concerto for Orchestra (1939–40) a Symphony (1957–61) and, one of his best-known scores, the Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song (1938–39), often referred to as the ‘Peacock Variations’. Among his choral-orchestral output the Missa Brevis (1942–44) enjoys considerable esteem, as does the Te Deum of Buda Castle (1936).
Kodály’s renown as a music educator is almost as high as his reputation as a composer. He was very interested in the problems of music education, and wrote a good deal of educational music for schools, as well as books on the subject. His work in this field had a profound effect on musical education both inside and outside his home country. Although he is sometimes acknowledged as the creator of the 'Kodály Method', this is something of a misnomer as Kodály did not actually devise a comprehensive method. Instead, he laid down a set of principles for music education.
In 1945 he became the president of the Hungarian Arts Council, and in 1962 received the Order of the Hungarian People's Republic. His other posts included a Presidency of the International Folk Music Council, and Honorary Presidency of the International Society for Music Education. He died in Budapest on 6th March 1967, one of the most respected and well-known figures in the Hungarian arts.