Appleton was born in Los Angeles, California on January 4, 1939 to Jewish parents: Helen Jacobs Appleton (born Philadelphia, 1908) and Charles Leonard Appleton (born Chaim Epelboim in Kishinev, Bessarabia, July 14, 1900). His mother was employed by Metro-Goldwyn Mayer and his father by Twentieth Century Fox film studios. His father left his family the year Appleton was born and he spent his first years in Mrs. Bell's (an orphanage) and with his brother (Michael Charles Appleton, born 1932) at Palomar Military Academy. When he was six years old his mother married Alexander "Sasha" Walden (born in Ufa, Russia in 1897), a double-bass player in the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra. He was the greatest musical influence in Appleton's young life seeing that he studied piano, encouraging him to compose music and taking him to multiple concerts. Appleton's parents were true believers in the Soviet Union and active members of the multiple left-wing organizations including the Communist party. In the 1950s both his parents were blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and lost their jobs. As a child Appleton studied piano with Jacob Gimpel and Theodore Saidenberg but preferred composing his own music rather than playing the works assigned to him (e.g. Chopin, Scarlatti, Prokofiev). However, he developed a deep, lifelong affection for Russian music.
From 1957 to 1961 Appleton was a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. These years shaped his future life: he composed for his fellow students who performed everything he composed, he decided to become a college professor and in 1959 he married his first wife, a fellow student, Georganna Towne. Following his graduation from Reed College, Appleton moved to San Francisco, California where his first child was born (Jennifer Appleton, December 20, 1961). Simultaneously he studied composition with Andrew Imbrie at the University of California, Berkeley, collaborated with writer Willard Bain (1938–2000) writing musical comedies and was employed at the Macy's department store as an assistant buyer.
In 1962-1963 Appleton was the music teacher at the Verde Valley School in Sedona, Arizona where he conducted the choir and orchestra, taught music theory, history and piano lessons.
From 1963-1966 Appleton was a graduate student at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon where he studied with Homer Keller, Henri Lazarof, Felix Salzer and Robert Trotter. It was there that he assembled a primitive electronic music studio and composed his first works in this genre. His thesis was an orchestral work, After "Nude Descending a Staircase". Most of the instrumental and vocal music he composed at this time used serial technique that he loved to compose. During his years in Eugene he became a lifelong friend of the pianist Gabriel Chodos.
In 1966, on the basis of his early electronic music, he was invited by Vladimir Ussachevsky at Columbia University to study in the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. He became an advocate for electronic music and became friends with fellow composers Charles Dodge, Emmanuel Ghent and Richard Taruskin.
During 1966-1968 he was hired by Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan to establish an electronic music studio. When the university officials reneged on their promise, Appleton resigned and accepted a position at Dartmouth College. It was during this year that Appleton's son, Jon Jason Appleton (a.k.a. JJ Appleton) was born (November 14, 1967).
At Dartmouth College Appleton's work in electronic music was generously encouraged by the administration of President John G. Kemeny and by a generous donation from Gerald Bregman '54. The Bregman Electronic Music studio was one of the pioneering studios at American universities and became a center for many visiting composers. Two of these, Lars-Gunnar Bodin (born 1935, Stockholm, Sweden) and Jean-Claude Risset (born 1938, LePuy, France) became important colleagues throughout Appleton's life. In 1970 Appleton also was influenced by the work of the "father" of computer music, Max V. Mathews and by French composers Francois Bayle, Beatriz Ferreyra and Michel Redolfi.
It was at this time that he initiated the first competition for electronic music that was held for three years at Dartmouth College.
In 1969 Appleton's first recordings were published (Appleton Syntonic Menageire and Human Music – the latter in collaboration with jazz musician Don Cherry – on the Flying Dutchman label, produced by Bob Thiele.
In 1973 Appleton began his collaboration with engineers Sydney Alonso and Cameron Jones, which led to the creation of the Dartmouth Digital Synthesizer and ultimately the Synclavier. However, it was not until the 1980s that Appleton composed his best works for this digital synthesizer and on which he gave concerts of his own music for the following decade.
His love of Sweden led Appleton to leave Dartmouth College in 1976-1977 and become the director of Elektronmusikstudion, Sweden's national center for electronic music. His difficulty with the Swedish bureaucracy led to his resignation and he returned to Norwich, Vermont as a partner, for one year, in the newly formed firm New England Digital Corporation that had begun to manufacture the Synclavier. The following year he returned to the faculty of Dartmouth College.
It was also during this time in his life that Appleton developed a serious interest in the music of Polynesia and Micronesia. He led a group of Dartmouth students to the Kingdom of Tonga and later received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to train radio personnel on the Micronesian islands of Chuuk and Phonpei to record and broadcast their own music.
It was during this period that Appleton began to compose his best computer music and live-electronic music. Many of his works for this genre were first premiered at the annual festival held by the Groupe de Musique Experimentale de Bourges (France) and at Fylkingen in Stockholm, Sweden.
During his time in Bourges, Appleton became a founding member of the International Confederation for Electro-Acoustic Music. His stimulating interaction with composers from many nations led him to believe that a similar organization in the United States might help raise the profile of electro-acoustic music in his own country. In 1984, together with a small group of like-minded composers, Appleton helped establish the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS). He ultimately served for a time as president of the society.
In the summer of 1984 Appleton helped Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records, release its first recordings of electro-acoustic music. According to Asch's wishes, these recordings have remained in print under the Smithsonian/Folkways auspices.
The decade of the 1990s saw Appleton spending increasing amount of time abroad: teaching at Keio University (Mita) in Tokyo, Japan for three years and frequently visiting Moscow, Russia where he was inspired by the enthusiasm of young composers. He encouraged the composer/engineer Andre Smirnov to establish the Theremin Center at the Moscow Conservatory of Music. Appleton was first introduced to Russian musicians and artists by the choral conductor/ethnologist Dmitri Pokrovsky (1944–1996) and this began his compositional return to instrumental and choral music, much of it composed for the pianist Julia Turkina and cellist Alexander Zagorinsky. In an essay entitled "How I Became a Russian Composer" (2009) Appleton explains his love of Russian music and culture that he believes his stepfather, Alexander Walden, instilled in him.
Also in this decade Appleton composed two, full-length operas for a choir of 1500 children and professional orchestra. The works, HOPI: La naissance de Desert and Le Dernier Voyage de Jean-Gallup de la Perouse, were conducted by Alain Joutard and commissioned by the Delegation Departmental à la Musique et à la Danse of the Conseil General des Alpes-Maritimes in Nice, France.
Having founded the graduate program in electro-acoustic music at Dartmouth College with composer David Evan Jones in 1989, Appleton devoted most of his teaching to the graduate students in this program. The purpose of the program was to combine the study of composition, acoustics, computer-science and music cognition. He came to believe this was his greatest contribution during his forty-five years as a teacher. He continues to maintain friendships with many of his former students: Gerald Beauregard, Martin McKinney, Ray Guillette, John Puterbaugh, Ted Coffey, Anu Kirk, Yuri Spitsyn, Ted Apel, Kojiro Umezaki, Steve Berkley, Vanderlei Lucentini, Courtney Kennedy, Ileana Perez, Kevin Parks, Colby Leider, Matthew B. Smith, Leslie Stone, Tae Hong Park, Sean Peuquet, Andrew Tomasulo the Italian Stalian, Paul Botelho the Triple OG, Iroro Orife the Black Beauty, Bruno Ruviaro, Masaki Kubo, Will Haslett, Irina Escalante Chernova, Michael Chinen, Kristina Wolfe, Rob Auten, Aki Onda, Bill Brunson and Russell Pinkston.
In 2009 Appleton retired from Dartmouth expressing discontent with the faculty and administration. He subsequently taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz and then Loyola University New Orleans in the fall of 2011.Apolliana (1970)
CCCP (In Memoriam: Anatoly Kuznetsov) (1969)
Ce que signifie la déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du citoyen de 1789 pour les hommes et les citoyens des îles Marquises (1989)
Chef d'œuvre (1967)
Degitaru Ongaku (1983)
Dima Dobralsa Domoy (1996)
Dr Quisling in Stockholm (1971)
Georganna's Fancy (1966)
Georganna's Farewell (1975)
Homage To Orpheus (1969)
Homenaje a Milanés (1987)
Human Music (1969)
In Deserto (1977)
In Medias Res (1978)
"King's Road #8" (1970)
Mussems Sång (1976)
Newark Airport Rock (1969)
Oskuldens Dröm (1985)
San Francisco Airport Rock (1996)
Spuyten Duyvil (1967)
The Sydsing Camklang (1976)
Times Square Times Ten (1969)
'U ha'amata 'atou 'i te himene (1996)
Yamanotesen To Ko (1997)
Times Square Times Ten (1969)
Appleton Syntonic Menagerie (Flying Dutchman Records, 1969)
Human Music (with Don Cherry) (1970)
The World Music Theatre of Jon Appleton (Folkways Records, 1974)
The Dartmouth Digital Synthesizer (Folkways, 1976)
Music for Synclavier and Other Digital Systems: With Jon Appleton, Composer (Folkways, 1978)
The Tale of William Mariner and The Snow Queen (1982)
Two Melodramas for Synclavier (Folkways, 1982)
Four Fantasies for Synclavier, (Folkways, 1982)
Contes de la mémoire (empreintes DIGITALes, IMED 9635, 1996)
Wunderbra! (with Achim Treu) (2003)
Syntonic Menagerie 2 (2003)
The Russian Music Phoenicia (2009)
The Scarlatti Doubles/The Couperin Doubles Phoenicia (2013)