He was born in Wahrenbrück in Germany. He sung in the chorus of the Dresden opera before moving to Braunschweig, singing there and writing six operas for the company. He was kapellmeister to Frederick II of Prussia (Frederick the Great) from his accession to the throne in 1740 until Graun's death nineteen years later in Berlin.
Graun wrote a number of operas, some, such as Montezuma (1755), with a libretto by King Frederick. None of his pieces are often performed today, though his passion Der Tod Jedu (The Death of Jesus, 1755) was frequently given in Germany for many years after his death. His other works include concertos and trio sonatas.
Carl Heinrich Graun was the brother of Johann Gottlieb Graun, also a composer.