Gould was born in Toronto, Ontario. After being taught piano by his mother, whose grandfather was a cousin of Edvard Grieg, Gould attended the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto from the age of ten. There he studied piano with Alberto Guerrero, organ with Frederick C. Silvester and theory with Leo Smith.
In 1945 he gave his first public performance (at the organ) and the following year made his first appearance with an orchestra (the Toronto Symphony Orchestra) in a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. His first public recital followed in 1947 and his first recital on CBC radio came in 1950. This was the beginning of a long association with the radio and with recording in general.
On April 10 1964 Gould gave his last public performance in Los Angeles, California, to concentrate on his other interests, writing, recording, broadcasting and composing (although he produced few works as a composer).
Gould's first record came in 1955. For it he chose the Goldberg Variations by Bach. It was a piece with which he was to become closely associated, playing it in full or in part at many of his recitals, including during his trip to the Soviet Union in 1957, a trip which made him the first North American to play there. One of his very last recordings was also of the Goldbergs, one of the few pieces which Gould recorded twice in the studio. Both recorded versions are critically acclaimed as some of the finest piano records ever made. The two recordings are very different, the first filled with energetic and skillful playing, the second was far slower and more introspective.
Gould recorded pieces by most prominent piano composers, but was outspoken in his criticism of many of them, apparently not caring for Frederic Chopin, for example. He was fond of some of the lesser known byways of the repertoire, such as early keyboard music by the likes of Orlando Gibbons, and also made critically acclaimed recordings of little known piano music by Jean Sibelius, Richard Strauss and Paul Hindemith. His recordings of the complete Arnold Schoenberg piano works are also highly regarded.
Gould's playing was characterized by great clarity, particularly in contrapuntal passages. His formidable technique enabled him to play passages extremely rapidly (he often took very rapid tempi) while retaining the separateness and clarity of each note. Gould was known for a vivid musical imagination, and listeners regarded his interpretations as ranging from brilliantly creative to (on occasion) outright eccentric. It was said of Gould that he never played the same piece twice in the same way.
Glenn Gould frequently sang along while he played, and his recording engineers varied in the degree to which they were successful in keeping the sound of his voice off of recordings. Gould claimed this singing was unconscious, and increased proportionately with the inability of the piano in question to realise the music as he intended.
An activity for which Gould is less well known, but also critically praised, is his work in radio documentary. Particularly notable in this field is his Solitude Trilogy, consisting of The Idea of North, a meditation on the north and its people; The Latecomers, which is about Newfoundland; and The Quiet in the Land, on Mennonites in Manitoba. All three use a technique which Gould called "contrapuntal radio," in which several people are heard speaking at once. According to his co-producer Lorne Tulk, he first used this technique out of necessity, when he found he had fourteen minutes too much material for The Idea of North. It is this technique, combined with the skillful editing of music and the use of recordings of ordinary people in conversation, which makes his documentary work stand apart from the crowd.
In 1993 he was the subject of an award-winning movie, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.