Chou Wen-chung's earliest work, Landscapes for orchestra (finished in 1949 and premiered by Leopold Stokowski with the San Francisco Symphony in 1953), is often cited as the first composition that is independent of either Western or Eastern musical grammar. Subsequently, his research for integration of musical concepts and practices led to his ever-evolving theory on his pien (variable) modes, influenced by concepts found in yin-yang and I Jing theories, Dao philosophy, brush calligraphy, and qin (Chinese zither) music, as well as early and modern European theories. It began with two works for wind orchestra, Metaphors (1959) and Riding the Wind (1964), but evolved steadily through such works as Pien (1966) for chamber ensemble, Echoes from the Gorge (1989) for percussion quartet, the Cello Concerto (1992), and most recently, the two string quartets, Clouds (1996) and Streams (2003).

Chou was introduced to Edgard Varèse by Colin McPhee in 1949, and became Varèse's student and assistant during the years when Varèse was composing his last works, including Déserts (1949-1954), the manuscript of which is, in fact, in Chou's handwriting. His decades-long task of editing and correcting Varèse's scores began under Varèse's supervision, but was mostly undertaken after his death, including both versions of Amériques. Chou has also completed two of Varèse's unfinished scores.

Chou did his graduate work at Columbia University under Otto Luening, 1952-1954, and served as his assistant and Vladimir Ussachevsky's at the predecessor of the historic Electronic Music Center. Among Chou's other teachers were Nicholas Slonimsky, Bohuslav Martinu, and the musicologist Paul Henry Lang at Columbia.

Chou taught composition to an increasingly international student body at Columbia University from 1964 to 1991. He succeeded Luening in 1969 and developed the composition program into an internationally renowned institution. He was responsible for the design and coordination of the curriculum for doctoral candidates in music composition. He designed the one-year course "Twentieth-century Styles and Techniques" as a basic required course for doctoral and master candidates in musical composition (1965) and the graduate course "Chinese Music" (1969); and designed the course content on East and Southeast Asian music for the course "Asian Humanities in Music" as well as coordinating the overall design of the course, including the music of South and West Asia (1982). Concurrently, he was also in charge of academic affairs at Columbia's School of the Arts. He supervised curricular planning and the revision for the Master of Fine Arts programs in film, theater, visual arts, and writing (1975 to 1987). In the 1980s, he discovered many young Chinese talents and brought them to the United States to study at Columbia.

As the first Fritz Reiner Professor of Musical Composition, Chou established the Fritz Reiner Center for Contemporary Music at Columbia in 1984 to foster new music and encourage young composers. He revitalized Columbia's Electronic Music Center by converting it to the present Computer Music Center. He has worked continuously on behalf of many cultural institutions, most notably as President of Composers Recordings, Inc. from 1970 to 1975.

To undertake crucially needed cultural projects throughout East and Southeast Asia, where he has been visiting since 1966, Chou established the Center for United States-China Arts Exchange in 1978 at Columbia University, which has since conducted many sustained projects in diverse cultural fields, involving thousands of professionals at a time. Some examples of the Center's projects are the Pacific Music Festival and the Pacific Composers Conference in Sapporo, Japan, in collaboration with Leonard Bernstein and the London Symphony Orchestra in 1990; the decade-long arts education program in China, begun in 1980, funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; and the ongoing comprehensive program on conservation and development of indigenous cultures of Yunnan, China, begun in 1990, funded by the Ford Foundation. Chou and the Center also collaborated with Isaac Stern on his first visit to China and the filming of From Mao to Mozart in 1979; and with Arthur Miller on the historic Asian premiere of Death of a Salesman in Beijing, 1983. In 1994, at the invitation of the Nationalities Institute of Yunnan, he designed the fundamental concept for a four-track (indigenous minority, majority Chinese, pan-Asian, and modern Western) curriculum for a new arts department (music, dance, and visual arts) in consultation with José Maceda.

Chou Wen-chung was born in Yantai, China in 1923 to a family steeped in the wenren tradition. He came to the United States in 1946. Chou is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and honorary member of the International Society for Contemporary Music and of the Asian Composers League. He was honored in 2001 by the French government with the order of Chevalier des Arts et Lettres. Chou's latest work, the Second String Quartet Streams, premiered in New York City in April 2004. Most recently, he was awarded the 2005 Robert Stevenson Prize for research on the relationship between ethnomusicology and composition.

Chou lives in New York City with his wife Yi-an. He has two grown sons, Luyen and Sumin, and two grandchildren.