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Kim was born in Dinuba, California, to immigrant Korean parents. He began piano studies at age ten and soon developed an interest in composition, studying in Los Angeles and Berkeley with, among others, Arnold Schoenberg, Ernest Bloch, and Roger Sessions. After serving in World War II as a combat intelligence officer, he accepted a teaching position at Princeton in 1952. In 1967 he left Princeton for Harvard University, where he taught until his retirement in 1990. He died of lung cancer at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the age of 78.
Kim is known for his vocal and music theater works, many of which use texts by Samuel Beckett, and for his expressive, often tonal style. Reviewing a New World Records CD of Kim's works, Anthony Tommasini wrote in The New York Times, "As a composer and a teacher of composers, Earl Kim espoused a principle so simple it should have seemed obvious. He maintained that every sound in a piece should be precise, purposeful and above all faithful to the composer's sensibilities." See: List of music students by teacher: K to M#Earl Kim. His art songs have been performed by Bethany Beardslee, Karol Bennett, Merja Sargon, Benita Valente and Dawn Upshaw.
- Where grief slumbers. Dawn Upshaw, soprano; Elektra Nonesuch 79262-2
- Ophelia. Margit Kern, accordion; Deutschlandfunk/Genuin GEN 13267
- Two Bagatelles. Robert Helps, piano; Composers Recordings, Inc. CRI CD 874
- Earthlight. Merja Sargon, soprano; Martha Potter, violin. New World Records NW 237
- Exercises en route; Now and Then; Three Poems in French; Dear Linda. Benita Valente, soprano; Karol Bennett, soprano; Eva Kim, narrator; Metamorphosen Chamber Ensemble, Scott Yoo, conductor. New World Records 80561-2
- Violin Concerto; Dialogues, for Piano and Orchestra; Cornet, for Narrator and Orchestra. Cecylia Arzewski, violin; William Wolfram, piano; Robert Kim, narrator; RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra; Scott Yoo, conductor. Naxos 8.559226
- Three Poems in French. Lucy Shelton, soprano; Mendelssohn String Quartet; BIS SACD-1264
- Violin Concerto. Itzhak Perlman, violin, The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, conductor. His Master's Voice 067 EL 27 0051 1; and Angel Records DS-38011
- "Composer Information for Earl Kim". Theodore Presser Company. Archived from the original on 17 October 2011. Retrieved 26 January 2012.
- Brandt, Anthony, liner notes to "Earl Kim" (New World Records, 2001)
- Barkin, E. "Earl Kim: Earthlight"; Perspectives of New Music xix/1–2 (1980–81), p. 269–77.
- Brody, Martin. "Kim, Earl". Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 31 Dec 2008 <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/15007>.
- Jeon, M.-E. "I am Concerned with What is Good", Sonus, vii/11 (1987), p. 1–9 [interview].
- Tassell, J. "Golden Silences: the Flowering of Earl Kim", Boston Globe Magazine (27 Feb 1983).
- Tommasini, Anthony. "Earl Kim, 78, Noted Composer Of Austere and Dazzling Works", The New York Times (November 26, 1998) 
- Forbes, Elliot; Lockwood, Lewis; Martino, Donald; & Rands, Bernard (Chair). "Faculty of Arts and Sciences—Memorial Minute—Earl Kim", The Harvard University Gazette Archives (May 25, 2000)