Born in Paderno Fasolaro, Ponchielli studied music at the Milan Conservatoire, writing his first symphony by the time he was ten years old. Two years after leaving the conservatoire he wrote his first opera, I promessi sposi, and it was as an opera composer that he found fame. His best known opera, La Gioconda, was produced in 1876. He died in Milan.
Although Ponchielli was very popular and influential in his lifetime, the only one of his operas regularly performed today is La Gioconda. It contains "The Dance of the Hours", which has become a well known piece in its own right, largly thanks to its use in Walt Disney's film Fantasia and the Allan Sherman song, "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah".