He was one of five children of the owner of a moving and storage company. As a boy he sang in church choirs and local opera theaters. His earliest extant compositions date to 1934, at a time he was attending John Adams High School, from which he graduated in 1935. After that, Ward attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where his composition teachers were Bernard Rogers, Howard Hanson, and Edward Royce. Ward received a fellowship and attended the Juilliard School of Music in New York from 1939 to 1942, where he studied composition with Frederick Jacobi, orchestration with Bernard Wagenaar, and conducting with Albert Stoessel and Edgar Schenkman. In the summer of 1941 he studied under Aaron Copland at the Berkshire Music Center in Massachusetts.
From his student days to the end of World War II, Ward produced about forty compositions, of which eleven he later withdrew. Most of those early works are on the small scale, mostly songs, some pieces for piano or chamber ensembles. He completed his First Symphony in 1941, which won the Juilliard Publication Award the following year. Around that time, Ward also wrote a number of reviews and other articles for the magazine Modern Music and served on the faculty of Queens College.
In February 1942 Ward joined the U.S. Army, and attended the Army Music School at Fort Myer, being assigned the military occupational specialty of band director. At Fort Riley, Kansas, he wrote a major part of the score to a musical revue called The Life of Riley. Ward was assigned to the 7th Infantry and sent to the Pacific. For the 7th Infantry Band he wrote a March, and for its dance band he wrote at least two jazz compositions.
During his military service Ward met Mary Raymond Benedict, a Red Cross recreation worker. They married on June 19, 1944, and had five children. Ward earned a Bronze Star for meritorious service in the Aleutian Islands. During his military service Ward managed to compose two serious orchestral compositions, Adaqio and Alleqro, first performed in New York in 1944, and Jubilation: An Overture, which was written mostly on Okinawa, Japan, in 1945, and was premiered at Carnegie Hall by the National Orchestral Association the following spring.
After being discharged from military service at the end of the war, Ward returned to Juilliard, earning postgraduate certificate in 1946 and immediately joining the faculty, teachiing there until 1956. He served as an Associate in Music at Columbia University from 1946 to 1948.
Ward wrote his Second Symphony, dedicated to his wife, in 1947, while living in Nyack, New York. It was premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Kindler. This Symphony was quite popular for a few years, in part thanks to Eugene Ormandy playing it with the Philadelphia Orchestra several times and even taking it on tour to Carnegie Hall in New York and Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.
Andrew Stiller, in his article on Ward for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, describes Ward's musical style as deriving "largely from Hindemith, but also shows the considerable influence of Gershwin". Ward conducted the Doctors Orchestral Society of New York from 1949 to 1955, wrote his Third Symphony and his First Sonata for Violin and Piano in 1950, the sacred Sonqs for Pantheists in 1951, and was music director of the Third Street Music School Settlement from 1952 to 1955, and wrote the Euphony for Orchestra in 1954. He left Juilliard in 1956 to become Executive Vice-President of Galaxy Music Corporation and Managing Editor of High Gate Press in New York, positions he maintained until 1967. Ward wrote his Fourth Symphony in 1958, the Prairie Overture in 1957, the cantata Earth Shall Be Fair and the Divertimento in 1960. Ward wrote his first opera to a libretto by Bernard Stambler, He Who Gets Slapped, and it was premiered in 1956. His next opera, The Crucible, based on Arthur Miller's play, premiered in 1961, became Ward's best known work.
After the success of The Crucible, Ward received several commissions for ceremonial works, such as Hymn and Celebration in 1962, Music for a Celebration in 1963 , Festive Ode in 1966, Fiesta Processional in 1966, and Music for a Great Occasion in 1970. During those years he also wrote the cantata, Sweet Freedom's Song, in 1965; the Fifth Symphony in 1976; a Piano Concerto in 1968, which was commissioned by the Powder River Foundation for the soloist Marjorie Mitchell; a Saxophone Concerto in 1984; and four more operas: The Lady from Colorado in 1964, Claudia Leqare in 1977, Abelard and Heloise in 1981, and Minutes till Midniqht in 1982. He also wrote chamber music, such as the First Strinq Quartet of 1966 and the Raleigh Divertimento of 1985.
In 1967, Ward became Chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. He held this post till 1975, when he stepped down to serve as a member of the composition faculty for five more years. In 1978 he came to Duke University as a visiting professor, and there he remained as Mary Duke Biddle Professor of Music from 1979 to 1987.
In the fall of 1987, he retired from Duke University as Professor Emeritus. He and his wife lived in Durham, North Carolina. On June 8, 1994, Robert Ward died in Wooster, Ohio.