Gounod was born in Paris and learned music with his mother as a child. He entered the Paris Conservatoire where he studied under Fromental HalÚvy. He won the Prix de Rome in 1839 for his cantata Ferdinand. He subsequently went to Italy where he studied the music of Palestrina.
Gounod wrote his first opera in 1851, but had no great success until Faust (1859), based on the poem by Goethe. This remains his best known work, although the opera Romeo et Juliette (based on the Shakespeare play), premiered in 1867, is also performed and recorded regularly. Later in his life, Gounod wrote mainly religious music.
Gounod died in 1893 in Saint-Cloud in France.