Born in Vienna as the son of a teacher, Gulda began learning to play the piano from Felix Pazofsky at the age of 7; in 1942, he entered the Vienna Music Academy, where he studied piano and musical theory under Bruno Seidlhofer and Joseph Marx. After winning first prize at the International Competition in Geneva four years later, in 1946, he began going on concert tours throughout the world. Together with Jörg Demus and Paul Badura-Skoda, Gulda formed what became known as the "viennese troica".
Although most famous for his Beethoven interpretations, Gulda also performed the music of J. S. Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Debussy and Ravel; he also cultivated an interest in Jazz from the 1950s on, writing several songs and instrumental pieces himself and also combining Jazz and classical music in his concerts at times.
It was this unorthodox practice that, together with others, earned him the nickname "terrorist pianist"; Gulda had a strong dislike of authorities like the Vienna academy, the Beethoven ring of which he was offered in recognition of his performances he refused, and even faked his own death in the late 1990s, cementing his status as the enfant terrible among piano players. Nevertheless, Gulda is widely regarded as one of the most outstanding piano players of the 20th century.