Susan McClary received her B.A. in 1968 from Southern Illinois University. She attended graduate school at Harvard University where she received her M.A. in 1971 and her Ph.D. in 1976. Her doctoral dissertation was on the transition from modal to tonal organization in Monteverdi's works. The first half of her dissertation was later reworked and expanded in her 2004 book "Modal Subjectivities: Self-fashioning in the Italian Madrigal".
She taught at the University of Minnesota (1977–1991), McGill University (1991–1994), University of California, Berkeley (1993), and University of California, Los Angeles (1994-2011). She has also held a five-year professorship at the University of Oslo (2007–2012). She is also a creator of several musical compositions for music theater. McClary is currently Professor of Musicology at Case Western Reserve University.
"Most people have music in the center of their lives. I believe my work sheds light on how music affects us and why it is so influential".
"Rather than protecting music as a sublimely meaningless activity that has managed to escape social signification, I insist on treating it as a medium that participates in social formation by influencing the ways we perceive our feelings, our bodies, our desires, our very subjectivities - even if it does so surreptitiously, without most of us knowing how. It is too important a cultural force to be shrouded by mystified notions of Romantic transcendence".
McClary is married to the musicologist Robert Walser.