Grown in Tucson, Arizona, Michael Stearns started practicing guitar at 13. At 16, he played in a surf music band, sometimes backing artists such as The Lovin' Spoonful and Paul Revere & the Raiders. Evolving to acid rock, he began composing music on multiple instruments in 1968 and, while in university and in the Air Force, spent a few years studying electronic music synthesis, the physics of musical instruments, and accumulating equipment (musical instruments, tape recorders...) for his first studio.
The studio opened in Tucson, Arizona in 1972 where he produced jingles and commercials for local radio and television, and nationally released jingles for Schlitz Beer and Greyhound Bus Lines. Michael's interest in experimental "space" music let him though unsatisfied, as he found no audience to play his musical ideas, which could be at this time only related to the drug experience. After three years, Michael Stearns underwent a spiritual crisis and thought about stopping music.
In 1975, Michael Stearns met Emily Conrad and Gary "Da'oud" David. Emily Conrad ran meditation classes in a workshop named Continuum, with Gary David performing on a Minimoog and looped tapes during the classes. Michael Stearns and his girlfriend Susan Harper moved in Los Angeles, California, to join Emily Conrad and Michael Stearns became a resident musician and composer till 1981. He developed then on synthesizers musical ideas that would feed his first solo albums.
By 1977, Michael Stearns had formed a small independent record label (Continuum Montage) with Susan Harper and a close friend and investor, David Breuer. The same year came the first releases on tape, Desert Moon Walk and Sustaining Cylinders, followed by Ancient Leaves, his first album released on LP, in 1978.
In the same years, Stearns started out playing with Fred Stofflet a percussionist, then with Don Preston, the former keyboardist for The Mothers of Invention. Both of them were playing for Emily David's classes. After that, Stearns, Stofflet and Craig Hundley, a friend of Gary David's, started a free jazz group called "Alivity". Kevin Braheny came to one of their concerts and became friend with Michael Stearns. Braheny joined later Stearns to play live for Continuum. He brought there his Serge synthesizer, on which Michael Stearns would record his album Morning Jewel in 1979, before building his own Serge synthesizer. In the same period, Stearns began also to work with Craig Huxley scoring movies, and developed a friendship with Stephen Hill.
In 1981, Continuum moved to a new location and Michael Stearns began a solo career as musician. He put together some ideas he performed live during the workshops on his Serge and came to his classic Planetary Unfolding. Ideas of the same kind were put together to form the album Light Play in 1983 and the track "Return" on the album Lyra.
Michael signed on the label Sonic Atmospheres in 1984, on which some of his earlier works would be re-released (Light Play became M'Ocean in 1984, Morning Jewel became Jewel in 1985, and Planetary Unfolding was given a new release in 1985). In 1984, Chronos was the first film music done entirely by Stearns after years of collaboration with Huxley or Maurice Jarre. In 1986, he provided "electronic images and textures" for Constance Demby's album Novus Magnificat. After two more releases for Sonic Atmospheres, Plunge (1986) and Floating Whispers (1987), Michael Stearns signed to Stephen Hill's new label Hearts of Space Records and released Encounter.
In the next years, Michael Stearns worked again with Ron Fricke, scoring Baraka, his best known composition and released several albums, working with Steve Roach, Kevin Braheny and/or Ron Sunsinger (1989 : Desert Solitaire, 1994 : Singing Stones and Kiva) or alone (1993 : Sacred Sites, 1995 : The Lost World).
In 2000 and 2001, Michael Stearns, now established in Santa Fe, New Mexico, released several albums on his own label Earth Turtle : Within, The Middle of Time, Spirits of the Voyage, The Storm, and Sorcerer. He is still scoring movies and documentaries today. In 2006, he was involved in the IMAX movie Te Vaka (intended to be filmed in 2007).