Réti was born in Uzice in Serbia and studied music theory, musicology and piano in Vienna. He was involved in establishing the Salzburg Festival and the International Society for Contemporary Music. He later emigrated to the United States of America and became an American citizen.
Réti is best remembered today for his distinctive method of musical analysis, which he called thematic process. This technique consisted of taking short melodic motifs and tracing their repetition and development through the piece. Rhythm is completely ignored.