Piston was born in Rockland, Maine. Although his family was mainly of English origin, his paternal grandfather was a sailor named Antonio Pistone, who changed his name to Anthony Piston when he came to Maine from Genoa, Italy. In 1905 the composer's father, Walter Piston Sr, moved with his family to Boston, Massachusetts.
Walter Jr first trained as an engineer at the Mechanical Arts High School in Boston, but was artistically inclined. After graduating in 1912, he enrolled in the Massachusetts Normal Art School, where he completed a four-year program in fine art in 1916.[not in citation given]
During the 1910s, Piston made a living playing piano and violin in dance bands and later playing violin in orchestras led by Georges Longy. During World War I, he joined the U.S. Navy as a band musician after rapidly teaching himself to play saxophone; he later stated that, when "it became obvious that everybody had to go into the service, I wanted to go in as a musician". While playing in a service band, he taught himself to play most wind instruments. "They were just lying around," he later observed, "and no one minded if you picked them up and found out what they could do".
Piston was admitted to Harvard College in 1920, where he studied counterpoint with Archibald Davison, canon and fugue with Clifford Heilman, advanced harmony with Edward Ballantine, and composition and music history with Edward Burlingame Hill. He often worked as an assistant for various music professors there, and conducted the student orchestra.
In 1920, Piston married artist Kathryn Nason (1892-1976), who had been a fellow student at the Normal Art School. The marriage lasted until her death in February 1976, a few months before his own.
On graduating summa cum laude from Harvard, Piston was awarded a John Knowles Paine Traveling Fellowship. He chose to go to Paris, living there from 1924 to 1926. At the Ecole Nationale de Musique in Paris, he studied composition and counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger, composition with Paul Dukas and violin with George Enescu. His Three Pieces for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon of 1925 was his first published score.
Piston studied the twelve-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg and wrote works using aspects of it as early as the Sonata for Flute and Piano (1930) and the First Symphony (1937). His first fully twelve-tone work was the Chromatic Study on the Name of Bach for organ (1940), which nonetheless retains a vague feeling of key. Although he employed twelve-tone elements sporadically throughout his career, these become much more pervasive in the Eighth Symphony (1965) and many of the works following it: the Variations for Cello and Orchestra (1966), Clarinet Concerto (1967), Ricercare for Orchestra, Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra (1970), and Flute Concerto (1971).
Piston wrote four books on the technical aspects of music theory which are considered to be classics in their respective fields: Principles of Harmonic Analysis, Counterpoint, Orchestration, and Harmony. The last of these introduced for the first time in theoretical literature several important new concepts that Piston had developed in his approach to music theory, notably the concept of harmonic rhythm, and the secondary dominant. This work went through four editions in the author's lifetime, was translated into several languages, and (with changes and additions by Mark DeVoto) was still regarded as recently as 2009 as a standard harmony text.
He died at his home in Belmont, Massachusetts on November 12, 1976.
His library and desk are permanently exhibited in the Piston Room, at the Boston Public Library.
Suite from The Incredible Flutist (1940) (The suite from The Incredible Flutist was transcribed for symphonic wind ensemble by MSgt Donald Patterson and recorded by Col. Michael Colburn with "The President's Own" United States Marine Band.)
Psalm and Prayer of David, for mixed chorus and seven instruments (1959)
"O sing unto the Lord a new song" (Psalm 96)
"Bow down thine ear, O Lord" (Psalm 86)
Principles of Harmonic Analysis. Boston: E. C. Schirmer, 1933.
Harmony. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1941. Reprint edition (as U.S. War Dept. Education Manual EM 601), Madison, Wisc.: Published for the United States Armed Forces Institute by W. Norton & Co., 1944. Revised ed, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1948. Third ed., 1962. Fourth ed., revised and expanded by Mark DeVoto, 1978. ISBN0-393-09034-5. 5th edition, revised and expanded by Mark DeVoto ISBN0-393-95480-3. British editions, London: Victor Gollancz, 1949, rev. ed. 1950 (reprinted 1973), 1959, 3rd ed. 1970, 4th ed. 1982. Spanish translation, as Armonía, rev. y ampliada por Mark DeVoto. Barcelona: Idea Books, 2001. ISBN84-8236-224-0 Chinese version of the 2nd edition, as [He sheng xue], trans. Chenbao Feng and Dunxing Shen. ? [Beijing: Ren min yin yue chu ban she : Xin hua shu dian Beijing fa xing suo fa xing], 1956. Revised, [Beijing: Ren min yin yue chu ban she], 1978.
Counterpoint. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1947.
Orchestration. New York: Norton, 1955. Russian translation, as '', translation and notes by Constantine Ivanov. Moscow: Soviet Composer, 1990, ISBN5-85285-014-4.
Archibald, Bruce (1978). "Reviews of Records: 'Walter Piston: Symphony No. 7, Symphony No. 8, Louisville Orchestra, Jorge Mester; Walter Piston: Symphony No. 5, Louisville Orchestra, Robert Whitney; Walter Piston: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, Paul Doktor, viola, Louisville Orchestra, Robert Whitney; Walter Piston: The Incredible Flutist, Louisville Orchestra, Jorge Mester.'". The Musical Quarterly. 64 (2 (April)): 263-68. doi:10.1093/mq/lxiv.2.263. ISSN0027-4631. JSTOR741453.
Firmino, Érico Artioli, José Lino Oliveira Bueno, and Emmanuel Bigand. 2009. "Travelling Through Pitch Space Speeds up Musical Time". Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal 26, no. 3 (February): 205-209.
Greene, David Mason (1985). Greene's Biographical Encyclopedia of Composers. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. ISBN978-0-385-14278-6.
Hudson, Edward (1976). "Walter Piston Dies; Composer Won Two Pulitzers". The New York Times (November 13): 21.
Lowe, Steven (2002). Liner notes to Walter Piston: Symphony No. 4, Capriccio for Harp and String Orchestra, Three New England Sketches. Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz, conductor. Naxos CD 8.559162.
Morgan, Paula (2001). "D'Accone, Frank A(Anthony)". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
Oja, Carol J. (2011). "Walter Piston (1894-1976)". American Symphony Orchestra Program Notes (March 29). (Accessed 03/02/11).
Perlis, Vivian (2001). "Wyner, Yehudi". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
Pollack, Howard (1992). Harvard Composers: Walter Piston and His Students, from Elliott Carter to Frederic Rzewski. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press. ISBN0-8108-2493-0.
Pollack, Howard (2001). "Piston, Walter (Hamor)". Grove Music Online., Deane Root, editor in chief. (Subscription access). Previously published in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001.
Slonimsky, Nicolas; Laura Kuhn; Dennis McIntire, eds. (2001). Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Centennial Edition (ninth ed.). New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN978-0-02-865525-3.