Monteux was born in Paris and started to learn the violin when he was six. When he was nine he learned at the Paris Conservatoire. When he was twelve he conducted an orchestra in Paris with the pianist Alfred Cortot as soloist. He played in orchestras, and was the principal of the viola section in the first performance of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande. He started to conduct some of the concerts in the series Concerts Colonne.
Monteux soon became famous as a conductor. He conducted the orchestra for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, conducting the first performances of Stravinskys 'Petrouchka, Rite of Spring as well as Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Debussy’s Jeux. These were some of the greatest ballets of the 20th century.
In 1916 Monteux went to the USA and conducted the French operas at the Metropolitan Opera. In 1920 he moved to Boston, conducting many new works by Debussy, Chausson, Darius Milhaud and others. In 1924 he became assistant conductor at the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam. He started the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris in 1929, and also a school for conducting, the École Monteux, in Paris. Later he continued this teaching in his American home in Maine. Neville Marriner and André Previn were two of his pupils.
In 1936 he became conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He stayed with this orchestra until 1952. He made this orchestra internationally famous. In 1942 he became an American citizen. In the 1950s he often conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Monteux continued to conduct until shortly before his death at the age of 89. In 1961 he was appointed chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra for 25 years, although he did not live long enough to fulfil this. He conducted this orchestra in 1963 in a performance of the Rite of Spring, fifty years after he had conducted the first performance.
Monteux always prepared his work very carefully. He was not a conductor who liked to show off. He rehearsed his orchestras thoroughly, and conducted with small gestures. Although he made gramophone recordings, he did not like recordings. He preferred concerts with a live audience. He received many honours, including the Légion d’honneur and the Knight of the Order of Oranje Nassau.