Rattle was born in Liverpool. He learnt the piano and violin, but his early work with orchestras was as a percussionist. He entered the Royal Academy of Music in London in 1971. There he was able to frequently conduct, and in 1974, his graduation year, he won the John Player Conductor Competition.
In 1974, he was made assistant conductor of the Bournmouth Symphony Orchestra[?], and in 1977 assistant conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic[?]. It was his stint with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from 1980 to 1998, however, which drew him to the attention of critics and the public. Not only did he himself become much more prominent in this period, he also raised the orchestra to become one of the most famous in Britain. By the time he left his position there, he was one of the most recognisable of all conductors.
In 1999, Rattle was appointed as succesor to Claudio Abbado as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO), widely seen as the most important and prestigious conducting post in the world. The appointment, decided on in a vote by the orchestra's members, was somewhat controversial, with many members of the normally conservative orchestra preferring Daniel Barenboim for the post.
Since his appointment, Rattle has a change in the orchestra's status to a foundation, meaning its activities are much more under the control of the members, rather than politicians. He has also ensured that orchestra members wages have increased quite dramatically, having fallen over the past few years. His appointment remains controversial in some quarters, but reports indicate that the orchestra itself has been supportive of him, despite many of its members not voting for him. He gave his first concert as principal conductor of the BPO on September 7, 2002, leading performances of Thomas Adés[?]' Asyla and Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5.
Rattle has conducted a wide variety of music, including some with period instruments (musical instruments contemporary with the music being played), but he is best known for his interpretations of early 20th century composers like Mahler, with a recording of Mahler's Second Symphony winning several awards on its release and being regarded by some as Rattle's greatest recording to date. He has also championed much modern music.