He was born in Bern, Idaho. His family moved several times in his childhood while his father searched for work before settling in Los Angeles, California. He studied at Los Angeles City College, and was such a good saxophonist that he came out ahead of Eric Dolphy in an audition for the school's jazz band. As well as Dolphy, he also played alongside Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Billy Higgins.
He later entered the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to study music, and later still the University of California, Berkeley. He also studied electronic music with Richard Maxfield and attended the summer courses at Darmstadt under Karlheinz Stockhausen. Over this period he virtually gave up playing the saxophone to concentrate on composition, being influenced by Anton Webern, Gregorian chant and various music of other cultures, including Indian classical music and Indonesian gamelan music. These interests, and a wish to be able to find the intervals he used by ear, later led to him studying with Pandit Pran Nath from 1970 (fellow students included his wife Marian Zazeela and the composer Terry Riley).
Young's early works mainly use the twelve tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg (who Young at sudied with at Los Angeles), although several of these early pieces were destroyed by their composer. When he visited Darmstadt, he discovered John Cage through Stockhausen, and became more interested in theatrical elements of music. He also began to incorporate drones into his work more under the influence of non-western musics.
After becoming involved in the Fluxus movement, in 1960, Young wrote one of his best known collections, Compositions 1960. They include pieces which emphasise the theatrical element of music. They consist of simple instructions to the performer rather than the usual musical notation. One instructs "draw a straight line and follow it", another instructs the performer to build a fire, and another says the performer should release a butterfly into the room.
Other examples of Young's less conventional works include a piano piece in which the performer plays, only once, the chord comprised of the notes B directly below and F sharp directly above middle C, and allows them to sound until they had completely died away; another piano piece in which the performer is instructed to push the piano towards the nearest wall, and if the piano goes through the wall then keep pushing, otherwise to stop once the performer is too tired to continue; and a piece instructing the performer to urinate.
Young has written more conventional music as well. One of his better known early pieces, the String Trio of 1958, while considered very extreme at the time of its composition, can now be seen as one of Young's more conventional works. It is a serial work, but rather than using the technique to create dense, complicated music, Young's trio is slow moving, mainly very quiet, and full of drones.
In 1962 Young wrote his first drone based piece in just intonation, The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer, also his first piece to use electronics. The piece, one of The Four Dreams of China, is based on four pitches with the frequency ratios: 36-35-32-24 (G, C, +C#, D), and limits as to which may be combined with any other. Most of his pieces after this point are based on a drone of select pitches, played continuously, and a group of long held pitches to be improvised on. For The Four Dreams of China Young began to plan the "Dream House", a light and sound installation where musicians would live and create music twenty four hours a day, and formed The Theater of Eternal Music to realize this and other pieces. The group initial included his wife, Marian Zazeela who has provided the light show, The Ornamental Lightyears Tracery, for all performance since 1965, Angus MacLise, and Billy Name. In 1964 the ensemble contained Young and Zazeela, voices; Tony Conrad and John Cale, strings; and sometimes Terry Riley, voice. Since 1966 Young has realized the "Dream Theater" despite interruptions due to a lack of funding for such an exceptional, extensive, and expensive project.
Most of these pieces have long titles, such as The Tortoise Recalling the Drone of the Holy Numbers as they were Revealed in the Dreams of the Whirlwind and the Obsidian Gong, Illuminated by the Sawmill, the Green Sawtooth Ocelot and the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer. Likewise, his works are often of extreme length, many pieces having no beginning and no end, existing before and after a particular performance. Young and Zazeela are also on an extended sleep schedule, their "days" being longer than twenty-four hours.
La Monte Young has been extremely influential, from John Cale's contribution to the Velvet Underground's sound to his own followers, including: Tony Conrad, Jon Hassell, Rhys Chatham, Michael Harrison, Henry Flynt, and Catherine Christer Hennix.