She was born in Hamilton, New Zealand into a large musical family. As a child she performed at various concerts, singing mainly country and western pop and music from the shows. She received her first classical training in 1955, from Sister Mary Magdalen at Ngaruawahia, north of Hamilton. Sister Febronie continued with her voice training and Sister Liguori gave her piano tuition. As her potential blossomed, Major began travelling weekly to Ponsonby in Auckland, where she received further tuition from Dame Sister Mary Leo at St Mary's College Music School. Sister Mary Leo was internationally recognised as one of the great music teachers, and she later taught another famous New Zealand soprano, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.
Major later moved to England for further study at the London Opera Centre under the guidance of renowned teacher Ruth Packer.
Her successes include winning the 1963 New Zealand Mobil Song Quest beating Te Kanawa who placed second (Dame Kiri later won the 1965 contest). She also won the Australian Melbourne Sun-Aria in 1965, and the prestigious London based Kathleen Ferrier Award in 1966. Malvina later performed in international concerts including a BBC concert broadcast in London, an outdoor concert at the pyramids in Egypt with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, and a charity concert for Vera Lynn in London. She has performed more than 30 opera roles in their original languages. She has recorded numerous records and CDs.
She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1991 in recognition of her contributions to music, and a Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (PCNZM) in 2008 for her contributions to opera. This was later exchanged for Dame Grand Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
In 1998 she received the Benny Award from the Variety Artists Club of New Zealand Inc.
In 2008, Major performed solo and duet with Hayley Westenra within ChristChurch Cathedral Choir 2008 UK Tour.
On 18 March 2011, Major performed in the national Christchurch memorial service at Hagley Park of Christchurch in the presence of Prince William, Prime Minister John Key, Bob Parker, Hayley Westenra, ChristChurch Cathedral Choir, dignitaries, international rescue teams and tens of thousands of New Zealanders.
On 25 February 2012, Major performed with soprano Amina Edris and tenor Chase Douglas in Waikato Times Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival.
In The Queen's Birthday and Diamond Jubilee Honours List 2012 Dame Malvina Major was appointed to the Order of New Zealand. This is the highest honour awarded by the Queen of New Zealand, and entitles members of use the post-nominal letters ONZ.
Major is currently Professor of Voice at University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand.
In 1992 she established a foundation to promote education through awards and provide training for young New Zealanders in the performing arts. One such recipient of her personal training is Hayley Westenra.