Michael Daugherty was born in 1954 in Cedar Rapids, IA. Raised in a family of musicians (his father was a dance band drummer), Daugherty was subject to many different influences, and began playing keyboards in jazz, rock, and funk bands. It was these early influences and loves that later informed his formal music writing; his chamber music and symphonic works alike are based on references to American popular culture, including Elvis Presley, J. Edgar Hoover, I Love Lucy, UFOs, Rosa Parks, spaghetti Western movies, and Barbie dolls. With these pieces, Daugherty has risen to be one of the most performed and talked-about composers of his time.
Daugherty received his bachelor's degree from North Texas State University in 1976. It was there that he composed his first work for orchestra. He then received a master of music degree from the Manhattan School of Music. Daugherty left the states on a Fulbright fellowship to attend Boulez's IRCAM in Paris in 1979. In 1980, he began his final graduate studies at Yale University. After completing the coursework requirement of the degree, he moved to Hamburg, Germany, to study privately with György Ligeti.
In 1986, Daugherty received his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Yale University and was hired to teach composition at the Oberlin Conservatory. The following year, he came to national attention after winning a Kennedy Center Friedheim award for Snap, Blue like an Orange! Over the next few years, Daugherty's music began to be performed all over the United States and appeared on many recordings. Some of the pieces he wrote at this time were the Metropolis Symphony for orchestra, Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover for 3 Elvis impersonators and string quartet, Bizzaro for symphonic winds, and Dead Elvis for chamber ensemble. Daugherty received critical acclaim and audience approval for his work including awards and fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Lincoln Center, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Daugherty began teaching at the University of Michigan in 1991. Commissions during this period included Jackie-O for the Houston Grand Opera, UFO for percussionist Evelyn Glennie and orchestra, Spaghetti Western for English horn and orchestra for the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Hell's Angels, a concerto for bassoon quartet and orchestra. The Detroit Symphony, as part of his four-year appointment as composer-in-residence, premiered Motor City Triptych in 2000.