Maderna was born in Venice. At the age of four he was taught violin in Chioggia, and his grandfather recognised the child's brilliance. He was known in Italy and abroad as "Brunetto" (Italian for Little Bruno).
During World War II he was drafted into the army, but soon after he voluntarily joined the antifascist Partisan Resistance. After the War, 1947–1950, he taught composition at the Venice Conservatory at the invitation of Malipiero. In those years he taught a large class which included Luigi Nono, who had previously studied law.
In 1948 (through Malipiero) he met Hermann Scherchen, and Maderna and Luigi Nono both attended a course of instruction with him at Venice.Scherchen set Maderna'sDIRECTION towards dodecaphonic method. He was invited to conduct at the (1951) Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musikin Darmstadt, where he took a founding initiative in the Internationales Kranichsteiner Kammer-Ensemble, a chamber-group which was newly re-convened every year as an ad-hoc-Ensemble. Here he met (among others) Boulez, Messiaen, Stockhausen, Cage, Pousseur and the most important performers of theNeue Musik, who inspired him to compose new pieces.
Among the early works is the Concerto per due pianoforti e strumenti (1947–48), influenced by the music of Bartók, which has a special approach towards difficult sonorities. In 1948 he composed his first serial work, the Tre liriche greche. The Quartetto per archi in due tempi (of 1955) is an even more intensively serial piece.
The flautist Severino Gazzelloni inspired Maderna during the Darmstadt experience. In 1961 he composed Honeyreves for flute and piano: this piece was built on complex flute melodies and on unusual piano sound effects (clusters, playing on the strings, etc.). In the Studio di Fonologia Musicale, with the help of sound technician Marino Zuccheri, he wrote some electroacoustic works: Musica su due dimensioni (Music in two dimensions, 1952, rev. 1957 and 1963) for flute and magnetic tape, Notturno (1956) and Continuo (1958) both for magnetic tape.
In 1962/63 Maderna wrote his first oboe concerto (Concerto for Oboe and Chamber Ensemble). In 1967 he wrote his second oboe concerto, and in 1973 his third.
One of his works is Quadrivium for four percussionists and four orchestral groups (played for the first time at the Royan Festival in 1969). A recording of this work, coupled with the composer's Aura and Biogramma, was made by the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra under Giuseppe Sinopoli in 1979 and issued by Deutsche Grammophon. Among various other compositions are an electro-acoustic divertimento Le Rire (1964), a "work in progress" calledHyperion, and an opera Satyricon. Ausstrahlung for female voice, flute, oboe and pre-recorded tape, based on annonymous Persian poetry was commissioned by the Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of Arts and premiered there in 1971 with Maderna conducting the Hague Residence Orchestra and Cathy Berberian, Koos Verheul and Lothar Faber soloists.
Versatile as Maderna was, he also produced scores for five Italian movies released between 1946 and 1968. The most famous of these being the revolutionary soundtrack for La morte ha fatto l'uovo (Death Laid an Egg), a 1968 psychedelic thriller by Giulio Questi.
In 1971 Maderna wrote "Pièce pour Ivry", for solo violin, an aleatory work dedicated to Ivry Gitlis. This was Maderna's last composition, making use of pre-written material prepared for his "Juilliard Serenade", composed some years before.