Shaw was born in Greenville, North Carolina and began playing the violin when she was two years old. Her mother was her first teacher. She began writing music when she was ten years old, mostly in imitation of the chamber music of Mozart and Brahms. At the time, her main focus was on violin performance. Shaw received her Bachelor of Music (violin performance) from Rice University in 2004, and her master's degree (violin) from Yale University in 2007. She entered the PhD program in composition in Princeton University in 2010.
At 30, Shaw became the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her composition Partita for 8 Voices. The jury citation praised the composition as "a highly polished and inventive a cappella work uniquely embracing speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects." The work comprises four movements inspired by baroque dance forms: Allemande, Sarabande, Courante and Passacaglia. A recording of the work was released by New Amsterdam Records on 30 October 2012, performed by the ensemble Roomful of Teeth. According to Steven Mackey, chair of the Department of Music at Princeton, this is the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a member of the department. (Milton Babbitt was awarded a Pulitzer citation in 1982 for his life's work as a composer.)
Besides composition, Shaw is known as a musician appearing in many guises. She performs primarily as violinist with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) and as vocalist with Roomful of Teeth. She also works with the Trinity Wall Street Choir, Alarm Will Sound, Wordless Music Orchestra, Ensemble Signal, AXIOM, The Yehudim, Victoire, Opera Cabal, the Mark Morris Dance Group Ensemble, Hotel Elefant, the Oracle Hysterical, Red Light New Music, Robert Mealy's Yale Baroque Ensemble.
Her works have been performed by Roomful of Teeth, So Percussion, ACME, the Brentano String Quartet, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Shaw has been a Yale Baroque Ensemble fellow and a Rice University Goliard fellow. She received the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship in 2004/5.
In October 2015, rapper Kanye West released a remix of "Say You Will", the opening track from his 2008 album, 808's & Heartbreak. The remix, co-produced by Caroline Shaw, features vocals from Shaw similar to her classical compositions. She also features on "Wolves" and contributed vocals to "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2", both from West's 7th studio album, The Life of Pablo. Shaw also contributed vocals to a leaked version of "Only One" that appeared on the internet in February.
Shaw is the great-great-granddaughter of Chang Bunker, and great-great-grandniece of Eng Bunker, conjoined twins from then-Siam who received great notoriety during their lifetime (see Chang and Eng Bunker).
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- 2004–2005 Fellows, Thomas J. Watson Fellowship
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- Gordon, Jeremy (19 October 2015). "Kanye West Shares New Versions of "Say You Will" and the Weeknd's "Tell Your Friends"". Pitchfork Media. Condé Nast. Retrieved 22 October 2015.
Kanye West has shared two new tracks on his Soundcloud: a new version of "Say You Will"... that features Pulitzer-winning musician Caroline Shaw
- Young, Alex (17 February 2016). "Over 100 people contributed to the making of Kanye West's The Life of Pablo". Consequence of Sounds. Retrieved 3 May 2016.
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- Smith, Tim (September 19, 2016). "Baltimore Symphony gala with Itzhak Perlman, OrchKids raises $1 million". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved September 19, 2016.
- Tim, J. T. Hassell (September 18, 2016). "Baltimore Symphony opens centennial season in rousing style with pie and Perlman". Washington Classical Review. Retrieved September 19, 2016.
- Caroline Shaw, Vogue Italia.