Blackwood was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. He studied piano there and was doing solo appearances at the age of 14 with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. After studies at many places (including Yale University, where he earned his Master of Arts degree) in the United States, he went to Paris to study from 1954 to 1956. His teachers include Olivier Messiaen, Paul Hindemith, and Nadia Boulanger. For forty years, from 1958 to 1997, Blackwood taught at the University of Chicago, most of the time with the title of Professor. He then became Professor Emeritus at the University. He is still teaching classes.
Blackwood’s initial compositions were not particularly unconventional although in them he employed polyrhythm and wide melodic contours. This early music by Blackwood has been characterized as in an atonal yet a formally conservative style. In 1980-81 Blackwood shifted rather abruptly to a new style, releasing Twelve Microtonal Etudes for Electronic Music Media. For these pieces, he used microtonality to create unusual equal tempered musical scales. Blackwood has explored all equal temperaments from 13 through 24, including 15-ET and 19-ET. Although Blackwood recorded most of these pieces with a synthesizer, his “Suite in 15-Note Equal Tuning, Op. 33” was performed live on a specially constructed guitar. His compositional style moved toward a late-19th-century tonality; he has likened its harmonic syntax to Giuseppe Verdi, Maurice Ravel, and César Franck.
As a performer at the piano, Blackwood has played diverse compositions and has promoted the music of Charles Ives, Pierre Boulez, and the second viennese school. In addition to his solo piano performances, Blackwood is pianist in the chamber group Chicago Pro Musica, largely comprising members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Blackwood has written a very substantial treatise on music harmony, A Practical Musician’s Guide to Tonal Harmony which, “…springs from studies at the French National Conservatory from 1954-1957 with Nadia Boulanger.”
Blackwood is also known for his book, The Structure of Recognizable Diatonic Tunings, (ISBN 0691091293) published 1986. A number of recordings of his music have been released by Cedille Records (the label of the Chicago Classical Recording Foundation) beginning in the 1990s such as Introducing Easley Blackwood.