Abels was born in Phoenix, Arizona. He spent his early years on a small farm in South Dakota, where he lived with his grandparents. Introduced to music via the family piano, he began showing an innate curiosity towards music at age 4. His music-loving grandparents convinced the local piano teacher to take him on as a student despite his age. At age 8, Abels began composing music, and by age 13, his first completed orchestral work was performed.
Upon graduating from high school, Abels attended the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles. Abels, who is mixed race, eventually studied West African drumming techniques at California Institute for the Arts, and sang in a predominantly black church choir to further explore his African-American roots.
The renowned gospel artist Rev. James Cleveland asked him to do some arrangements for an upcoming recording. Soon thereafter, he was commissioned by the Phoenix Symphony to write arrangements for a collaborative event with a local gospel choir. This commission led to many subsequent arrangements for gospel choir and orchestra.
During the Phoenix engagement, Abels conceived his most successful piece, Global Warming (1991). He scored Frederick's Fables (1994), based on a collection of children's stories by Leo Lionni, narrated by both Garrison Keillor and James Earl Jones. Abels' also received acclaim for his homage to black civil rights leader Martin Luther King in a piece called Dance for Martin’s Dream (1997).
Abels has been the recipient of two Meet The Composer grants, both of which support the creation of new work with an educational slant. The first, a three-year New Residencies grant, took place at the Watts Tower Arts Center in South Los Angeles. During his time there, he composed music for several world-premiere plays for the Cornerstone Theater, and a work for the USC Percussion Ensemble, which was premiered at the Watts Towers' annual Day of the Drum Festival.
Also during his Watts residency, Abels began a mentoring program for underserved youth in music technology and production techniques.
In 2004, Abels composed and arranged a music score based on operatic themes of Giuseppe Verdi, for Yo, Sam, a hip-hop song about the Watts Towers. The song appears on the sound track of I Build the Tower, a documentary feature film on the life of the Towers' creator, Simon Rodia.
Abels has enjoyed a lifelong musical collaboration with conductor Mark Russell Smith, who Abels met on their first day of second grade. His music was also championed by Maestro Paul Freeman, Founding Music Director of the Chicago Sinfonietta. Freeman made the first recording of Global Warming, and Chicago Sinfonietta recorded Abels' score to the show Fantasea (2010) for Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.
Abels is also a frequent collaborator with the Sphinx Organization and Sphinx Virtuosi, which commissioned his works Delights & Dances (2007), and Urban Legends (2011).
Abels composed the music for the 2017 film Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele, who heard his composition, Urban Legends. Peele said, "I wanted Michael Abels, who did the score, to create something that felt like it lived in this absence of hope but still had [black roots]." To help Abels prepare the score, Peele sent him the script for the film and examples of music he found scary, including blues and Latin chanting.
He currently runs the music department at a private school in Santa Monica, California.