His father sent him to Eton and intended him for the legal profession.
Surreptitiously, however, young Arne took lessons on the violin from Michael Festing, and composed music to Joseph Addison's opera Rosamund, which scored an enormous success at the theater in Lincoln's Inn. Thereafter the elder Arne had to consent to his son's becoming a musicia
Arne became attached to Drury Lane Theater, with which he was associated during most of his life. There, in partnership with Garrick, he produced light operas and the songs in Shakespeare's plays, which have remained popular owing to their sparkling and characteristic tunefulness.
Between 1738 and 1740 Arne composed his three great masques: Comus, The Judgment of Paris, and Alfred, which includes the ode in honor of Great Britain, destined to become known as Rule Britannia. These, with a later masque, The Fairy Prince (1771), represent Arne's chief output; but he also achieved a triumph with his serious opera Artaxerxes (1762) composed in the Italian style.
His greatest work is probably the oratorio Judith (1761), whose fine choruses, beautiful arias, and skillful dramatic treatment raise the work to the level of all but the best of Handel. Arne was a Roman Catholic and therefore did not compose for the English Church. Two of his Masses are unfortunately lost, but there exists a very expressive little Libera Me Domine that he wrote for the funeral of a friend.
In 1759 Oxford University conferred upon him the degree of doctor of music.