Cariaga, a Long Beach native, was born in 1935 and trained as a pianist at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, where he studied accompanying with Emanuel Bay, Jascha Heifetz's longtime accompanist. He then studied at UCLA and Cal State Long Beach, where he graduated in 1959.
He worked as a pianist and conductor until 1964. In 1961 he married the mezzo-soprano Marvellee Dyvonne Moody; together the Cariagas gave more than 1,000 recitals in the continental United States and on cruise ships, according to the Times.
Cariaga began his career as a music and dance critic in 1965, with the Long Beach Press-Telegram. He became the Los Angeles Times's music critic in 1972 and contributed over 2,000 reviews and features, according to the paper. He retired in 2003 but continued as a freelance writer.
Former Times music critic Martin Bernheimer told the paper that Cariaga was "the supremely reliable force that held the department together ... In his calm and quiet way, he maintained order, bolstered goodwill and sustained high standards of old-fashioned journalism. He was a discerning critic, a sympathetic editor, a suave writer and a musician with an unusually broad perspective. He somehow managed to be a realist and an idealist at the same time. Unlike many a colleague, he really understood technique, and he knew the repertory."