Kjerulf was born in Christiania (now Oslo), Norway. He was the son of a high government official. His early education was at Christiania University, for a legal career, but his studies ended in 1839 as a result of illness, and the next year he spent some time in Paris. Soon after his return his father and two siblings died and he took a job as a journalist at one of Oslo's main newspapers, Den Constitutionelle where Andreas Munch (1811–1884) was editor and where Kjerulf worked until 1845. 
Kjerulf started his career as a music teacher and composer of songs before ever having seriously studied music at all, and not for ten years did he attract any particular notice. He was counted among those in the Modern Breakthrough movement in literature, painting and music which was replacing romanticism within Scandinavia. It was typified by the poet Johan Sebastian Welhaven, whose poems he set.
In 1848 he studied with German musician and composer Carl Arnold (1794-1873), and after studying with Niels Gade (1817–1890) in Copenhagen, the Norwegian Government paid for a year's instruction for him at Leipzig in 1850, where he was taught by Ernst Richter (1808–1879). For many years after his return to Norway, Kjerulf tried in vain to establish regular classical concerts, while he himself was working with Bjørnson and other writers at the composition of lyrical songs. He did present some concerts, at which he introduced the Norwegian public to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and other standards otherwise little known to them. He obtained some official recognition during the 1860s. He died in Grefsen, near Christiania, in 1868, aged only 52. 
His fame rests mainly on his beautiful and manly national partsongs and solos. His piano music is equally charming. Edvard Grieg was an enthusiastic admirer of it and he was undoubtedly influenced by it in writing his Lyric Pieces. It was recorded in its entirety in 2001 by Einar Steen-Nøkleberg. His piano students included Agathe Backer-Grøndahl and Erika Nissen (then known as Erika Lie).
- "Halfdan Kjerulf". Store norske leksikon. Retrieved January 1, 2020.
- "Andreas Munch". Andreas Munch-selskapets nettsider. Retrieved January 1, 2020.
- Harald S. Næss A History of Norwegian Literature 1993 - Page 88 "His poetry, in musical settings by Kjerulf, has been preserved in the repertoire of the Oslo Student Chorus (founded by Kjerulf) and received added significance as the verbal expression of Norway's romantic landscape painting. Welhaven's .. which culminated in the 1840s but had a long-lasting effect among people of conservative taste, Welhaven was the preeminent poet, as Halfdan Kjerulf was the composer and Hans Gude and Adolf Tidemand the painters. His poetry, in musical ..."
- Grove's Dictionary, 5th ed (1954), ed. Eric Blom, Vol IV, pp.772-773
- "Gade, Niels Wilhelm". Salmonsens konversationsleksikon. Retrieved January 1, 2020.
- "Richter, Ernst Friederich Eduard". Salmonsens konversationsleksikon. Retrieved January 1, 2020.
- public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Kjerulf, Halfdan". Encyclopædia Britannica. 15 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 843. This article incorporates text from a publication now in the
- Free scores by Halfdan Kjerulf at the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)
- Free scores by Halfdan Kjerulf in the Choral Public Domain Library (ChoralWiki)