John M. Chowning was born in Salem, New Jersey, in 1934. Following military service he studied music at Wittenberg University where he concentrated on composition and received his degree in 1959. He then studied composition in Paris for three years with Nadia Boulanger. In 1966 he received the doctorate in composition from Stanford University, where he studied with Leland Smith. With the help of Max Mathews of Bell Telephone Laboratories and David Poole of Stanford, in 1964 he set up a computer music program using the computer system of Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. This was the first implementation of an on-line computer music system ever. Beginning in 1964 he began the research leading to the first generalized sound localization algorithm implemented in a quad format in 1966. In 1967, John Chowning discovered the frequency modulation (FM) algorithm in which both the carrier frequency and the modulating frequency are within the audio band. This breakthrough in the synthesis of timbres allowed a very simple yet elegant way of creating and controlling time-varying spectra. Over the next six years he worked toward turning this discovery into a system of musical importance. In 1973, he and Stanford University began a relationship with Yamaha in Japan, which led to the most successful synthesizer technology in the history of electronic musical instruments, known as 'FM synthesis.'
John Chowning has received fellowship grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and was artist-in-residence with the Kunstlerprogramm des Deutschen Akademischen Austauschdiensts for the City of Berlin in 1974, and guest artist in IRCAM, Paris in 1978, in 1981, and in 1985. His compositions have been recorded on compact disc, WERGO 2012-50. In 1983 he was honored for his contributions to the field of computer music at the International Computer Music Conference in Rochester, New York. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1988. In 1992 he was given The Osgood Hooker Professorship of Fine Arts by the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford. The French Ministry of Culture awarded him the Diplôme d’Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1995 and he was given the Doctorat Honoris Causa December 2002 by the Université de la Méditerranée. Chowning taught computer-sound synthesis and composition at Stanford University's Department of Music and was founder and director of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), one of the leading centers for computer music and related research.