Yves Tinayre was born the son of celebrated French painter, Louis Tinayre; his mother was a concert pianist. Tinayre studied composition in Paris with Armand Marsick, and took singing lessons in Milan and London. Even before the outbreak of World War I Tinayre was cultivating an interest in early music, seeking out old manuscripts in European monasteries and libraries. With the outbreak of World War I Tinayre was mobilized into the French Army; badly wounded in 1916, he was then discharged.
Tinayre made his debut as recitalist at Queen's Hall, London, in 1919. Around this same time, Tinayre made his first acoustical recordings for HMV. Tinayre embarked upon a series of recital programs featuring music taken from Old French and English manuscript sources, appearing in Milan, Switzerland, Belgium and England. He resumed recording for Pathé in the late 1920s and, in the 1930s, performed his entire repertoire for the BBC.
In 1937, Tinayre recorded two large sets of records for the French label Lumen issued as Seven Centuries of Sacred Music. The 12 discs included represent a range of material from Léonin and Pérotin through Gombert, Schütz, J.S. Bach and ending with Mozart. Seven Centuries of Music was a landmark issue in the field of early music recording. Tinayre also founded an Early Music Society, Les Musiciens de la Vielle France, and worked with Nadia Boulanger in promoting the study of early French music. The work of the society apparently ceased at the outbreak of World War II, and Tinayre fled to the United States in 1939.
In 1940 Tinayre performed at the Library of Congress, and recorded a set for CBS records the following year. He then toured the festival circuit in the U.S., presenting workshops in early music performance. In 1950, Tinayre made his last commercial recordings for the short-lived Allegro Long Playing label. In 1952, Decca Gold Label leased Tinayre's Seven Centuries of Sacred Music recordings from Lumen, adding a number of previously unissued tracks in order to compile a generous two-album set containing 30 selections. In 2001 copies of this set may yet be found held in music libraries in the United States, as it was long used as a tool for music history instruction.
After the Decca set was issued, it appears that Tinayre largely retired from music; subsequently he drifted into obscurity, dying in New York City at the age of 81. In a 1942 New York Times profile of Tinayre, Howard Taubman wrote "Tinayre goes by the short descriptive of baritone, but he is a scholar, conductor, speaker and artist; he is, in short, a magnificent musician."