Boulez was born in Montbrison, Loire, France. As a child he began piano lessons and demonstrated aptitude in both music and mathematics. He pursued the latter at Lyon before pursuing music at the Paris Conservatoire under Olivier Messiaen and the wife of Arthur Honegger, Andrée Vaurabourg.
Through Messiaen, Boulez discovered twelve-tone technique — which he would later study privately with René Leibowitz — and went on to write atonal music in a post-Webernian serial style. Boulez was initially part of a cadre of early supporters of Leibowitz, but due to an altercation with Leibowitz, their relations turned divisive, as Boulez spent much of his career promoting the music of Messiaen instead.
The first fruits of this were his cantatas Le visage nuptial and Le soleil des eaux for female voices and orchestra, both composed in the late 1940s and revised several times since, as well as the Second Piano Sonata of 1948, a well-received 32-minute work that Boulez composed at the age of 23. Thereafter, Boulez was influenced by Messiaen's research to extend twelve-tone technique beyond the realm of pitch organization, serialising durations, dynamics, mode of attack, and so on. This technique became known as integral serialism.
Boulez quickly became one of the philosophical leaders of the post-war movement in the arts towards greater abstraction and experimentation. Many composers of Boulez's generation taught at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt, Germany. The so-called Darmstadt School composers were instrumental in creating a style that, for a time, existed as an antidote to music of nationalist fervor; an international, even cosmopolitan style, a style that could not be 'co-opted' as propaganda in the way that the Nazis used, for example, the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. Boulez was in contact with many composers who would become influential, including John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Early in his career, he performed as a specialist on the ondes Martenot.
Today, Boulez continues to be one of the leaders of the post–World War II musical modernism. His compositions have enriched musical culture, and his advocacy of modern and postmodern music has been decisive for many. Boulez continues to conduct and compose. From 1976 to 1995, Boulez held the Chair in "Invention, technique et langage en musique" at the Collège de France. In 2002, he was awarded the Glenn Gould Prize for his contributions.