Karen Tanaka’s works have been performed by distinguished orchestras and ensembles worldwide, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Brodsky Quartet and Gothic Voices. She has received numerous commissions, notably from the Juilliard School, Gaudeamus Foundation, Radio France, the Canada Council, the Arts Council of England, BBC, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

After studying composition at Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo, she moved to Paris in 1986 with a French Government Scholarship to study with Tristan Murail and work at IRCAM. In 1987, she was awarded the Gaudeamus Prize in the Netherlands. She studied with Luciano Berio in Florence in 1990-91. In 2012, she was a fellow of the Sundance Institute’s Composers Lab for feature film and mentored by Hollywood’s leading composers. In 2016, she served as an orchestrator for the BBC's TV series, Planet Earth II. She scored the animated film Sister, which was nominated for the 92nd Academy Awards for Best Animated Short Film.

Her music is published by Chester Music (Wise Music Group) and Schott Music in New York (PSNY). Karen Tanaka lives in Los Angeles and teaches composition at California Institute of the Arts.