Josef Tal was born Joseph Grünthal in the town of Pinne (now Pniewy), near Poznań, German Empire (present-day Poland). Soon after his birth his family (parents Ottilie and Rabbi Julius Grünthal, and his elder sister Grete), moved to Berlin, where the family managed a private orphanage. Rabbi Julius Grünthal was a docent in the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies (Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums), specializing in the philology of ancient languages.

Tal's first encounter with music was at the synagogue, where there was a choir and his grandfather served as a non-professional cantor. After attending his first concert, he began to take piano lessons. Tal was admitted to the Staatliche Akademische Hochschule für Musik in Berlin and studied with Max Trapp (piano and composition), Heinz Tiessen (theory), Max Saal (harp), Curt Sachs (instrumentation), Fritz Flemming (oboe), Georg Schünemann (history of music), Charlotte Pfeffer and Siegfried Borris (ear training), Siegfried Ochs (choir singing), Leonid Kreutzer (piano methodology), and Julius Prüwer (conducting). Paul Hindemith —his composition and theory teacher— introduced him to Friedrich Trautwein, who directed the electronic music studio in the building cellar. Tal completed his studies in the academy in 1931, and married dancer Rosie Löwenthal one year later. He worked giving piano lessons and accompanying dancers, singers, and silent movies.

Nazi anti-Jewish labour laws rendered Tal jobless and he turned to studying photography with Schule Reimann with the intention of acquiring a profession that would make him eligible for an "immigration certificate" to Palestine.

In 1934, the family immigrated to Palestine with their young son Re'uven. Tal worked as a photographer in Haifa and Hadera for a short time. The family moved then to Kibbutz Beit Alpha and later to Kibbutz Gesher, where Tal intended to dedicate his time to his music. Finding it hard to adjust to the new social reality in the kibbutz, the family settled in Jerusalem where Tal established professional and social connections. He performed as a pianist, gave piano lessons and occasionally played harp with the newly-founded Palestine Orchestra. In 1937, the couple divorced.

Tal accepted an invitation from Emil Hauser to teach piano, theory, and composition at the Palestine Conservatory, and in 1948 he was appointed director of the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem, a post he held until 1952. In 1940 Tal married the sculptress Pola Pfeffer.

In 1951 Tal was appointed lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where in 1961 he established the Centre for Electronic Music in Israel. He published academic articles, and wrote many music entries in the Encyclopaedia Hebraica. In 1965 he was appointed senior professor and later chairman of the Musicology Department at the Hebrew University, a post he held until 1971. Among his many pupils are the composers Ben-Zion Orgad, Robert Starer, Naomi Shemer, Jacob Gilboa, and Yehuda Sharett, conductor Eliahu Inbal, musicologist Michal Smoira-Cohn, cellist Uzi Wiesel, pianists Walter Hautzig, Bracha Eden, and Jonathan Zak, and soprano Hilde Zadek.

Tal represented Israel at the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) conferences and in other musical events and attended many professional conferences around the world. He was a member of the Berlin Academy of the Arts (Akademie der Künste), and a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin (Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin).

Until his sixties Tal appeared as a pianist and conductor with various orchestras, but his major contribution to the music world lies in his challenging compositions and his novel use of sonority. In the 1990s Tal conducted, together with Dr Shlomo Markel, a research project (Talmark) aimed at the development of a novel musical notation system in cooperation with the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and VolkswagenStiftung. During these years his eyesight deteriorated and it became increasingly difficult for him to continue composing. Using a computer screen to enlarge the music score, he managed to compose short musical works for few instruments, write his third autobiography, and complete his visionary analysis of future music. The complete cycle of his symphonies conducted by Israel Yinon was released on the German label CPO.

Josef Tal is buried in Kibbutz Ma'ale HaHamisha, near Jerusalem. Part of his archival legacy is kept in the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Almost all of Tal's works are published by the Israel Music Institute (IMI).