He studied under composer Peter Lieberson at Harvard University, earning an AB in English with a thesis on James Joyce. From 1992 to 1996 he worked as music critic for the New York Times. He began contributing to The New Yorker in 1993 and joined the staff there in 1996. He is author of the books The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, a non-fiction finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and Samuel Johnson Prize – and Listen to This. Among other distinctions, he is a three-time winner of the Deems Taylor Award of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers.