Born in Burg Modarath, near Cologne (German: Köln), he studied at the Cologne Musikhochschule and University (1947-51), at Darmstadt in 1951 and with Olivier Messiaen in Paris (1951-53). From 1954 to 1956, at the University of Bonn, he studied phonetics, acoustics, and information theory and composition. After lecturing at the contemporary music seminars at Darmstadt (1957), Stockhausen gave lectures and concerts in Europe and North America.
Stockhausen has worked with serial and electronic procedures, with spatial placements of sound sources (for example in his noted work Gesang der Jünglinge), and with graphical notation. Stockhausen is unconcerned with musical tradition and his work is influenced by Messiaen and Anton Webern. He claims that he explores fundamental psychological and acoustic aspects of music. Despite his interest in electronic music he gives performers a large role in determining certain parameters of a composition. In Zyklus for example, the score is written so that the performance can start on any page, and it may be read upside down, or from right to left, or not, as the performer chooses.
In most of his works, elements are played off against one another, simultaneously and successively: in Kontrapunkte (1953) pairs of instruments and extremes of note values "confront" one another; in Gruppen (1959) fanfares and passages of varying speed are flung between three full orchestras, giving the impression of movement in space.
Stockhausen has written over 200 individual works. Since 1977 he has been working on a single enormous opera in seven parts, entitled Licht. In the early 1990s he gained access to all the recordings of his music he had made to that point, and began his own record company to make this music permanently available on compact disc. He also designs and prints his own musical scores.
The dream of flying has accompanied Karlheinz Stockhausen's career since the very beginning. Back in the early 1950s, when he was enthralling some and infuriating others in the avant-garde community around the Darmstadt Summer Courses in New Music with his first works Punkte, Kontra-Punkte and Kreuzspiel he was already developing his first ideas for liberating musicians from the constraints of gravity. With his studio technicians he discussed ways of positioning instrumentalists on chairs that could be swung through the room on ropes.
This interest came to a head with the Helikopter String Quartet, completed in 1993. In this, the four members of a string quartet each perform from their own helicopter flying above the concert hall. The sounds they play are mixed together with the sounds of the helicopters and played through speakers to the audience in the hall. Pictures of the performers are also transmitted back to the concert hall. The performers are kept in synchronicity with the aid of a click-track. Despite its extremely unusual nature, the piece has been given several performances, including one on 22nd August 2003 as part of the Salzburg Festival to open the Hangar-7 venue. The work has also been recorded by the Arditti Quartet.