He died after a long illness, according to the publisher, Schott Music, but the cause of death was not given.
Born in Romania to Hungarian Jewish parents, Ligeti studied at the Klausenberg Conservatory and the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. In 1956, he fled to the West, settling in Cologne, where he worked in the studios of West German radio.
In 1961, he found international recognition for Atmosphres, a large-scale work consisting of slowly evolving, massive chords, or "sound masses." He called the technique micropolyphony.
"The complex polyphony of the individual parts is embodied in a harmonic-musical flow, in which the harmonies do not change suddenly, but merge into one another," he said of the technique. "One clearly discernible interval combination is gradually blurred, and from this cloudiness it is possible to discern a new interval combination taking shape."
Parts of Atmosphres, Requiem, and Lux aeterna appeared on the soundtrack for 2001, a 1967 film by Stanley Kubrick that became a cultural icon. In fact, according to various sources, Kubrick used Ligeti's music without permission.
In the 1970s, Ligeti wrote his first opera, Le Grand Macabre, based on the Michel de Ghelderode play Le Balade du grand macabre. The surreal tale takes place in Breughelland, a mythical land on the verge of the apocalypse. The absurdist story is echoed in the instrumentation, which includes car horns, the sound of paper tearing, and harmonicas. Since its debut in 1978 in Stockholm, the opera has been revived many times times in Europe, although it did not reach the United States until 2004, when it was staged to acclaim at San Francisco Opera.
Ligeti's work in the 1980s and '90s, including the Piano Etudes, Piano Concerto, and Violin Concert, made use of a new polyrhythmic compositional technique, influenced in part by African drumming.
His many awards and honors include the Sibelius Prize, the Polar Music Prize, the Kyoto Prize, the Adorno Prize, and the Frankfurt Music Prize.