Schenker was born in Wisniowczyki in Galicia in Poland. He moved to Vienna where he studied music under Anton Bruckner and became known as a pianist accompanying lieder singers and playing chamber music. He taught the piano and music theory privately, with Wilhelm Furtwängler and Anthony van Hoboken among his pupils.
Schenker's ideas on analysis were developed in the two journals he published, Der Tonwille (1921-24) and Das Meisterwerk in der Musik (1925-30), both of which only included content by Schenker. The fact that his edition of Ludwig van Beethoven's late piano sonatas also include analyses of the works points up the fact that Schenker regarded his analyses as tools to be used by performers for a deeper understanding of the works they were performing.
In 1932, Schenker published Fünf Urlinie-Tafeln, analyses of five works using the technique which is now known as Schenkerian analysis. Following Schenker's death, his incomplete theoretical work Der freie Satz (1935) was published (translated into English by T. H. Kreuger in 1960 as a dissertation at the University of Iowa).