Walter Salmen was born in 1926, in Paderborn, Germany.
His career as a musicologist began after studying musicology, history, philosophy, composition, and organ at the University of Heidelberg, at the church music institute there, and after completing his doctorate in 1949 at the University of Münster.
In 1958 he completed his habilitation at Saarland University, Saarbrücken, and was a lecturer there in 1961. In 1966 he accepted an appointment as director of the Musicological Institute at the University of Kiel, and in 1972 he went to the University of Innsbruck as director of the Musicological Institute.
He has been repeatedly invited to professorships by the Universities of Illinois in Urbana Champaign, the City University of New York, the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, the Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, and the Université Friborg in Switzerland; in 1994/1995 he held the Wolfgang Stammler guest professorship for Germanic philology there.
After retiring in 1992, he moved to Kirchzarten near Freiburg i.Br. The University of Freiburg appointed him an honorary professor.
In 1994, the state of Tyrol awarded him the Cross of Merit for his services to cultural politics and science in the state.
In more than 40 books, as the initiator and editor of series of publications, in conference reports at the specialist conferences he regularly organizes, and in his essays, he was always concerned with the entire spectrum of effects of music. His technical understanding was shaped by an interdisciplinary, especially socio-historical perspective. He is one of the ancestors of musical iconography, one of the founding members of the RIdIM (Répertoire International d'Iconographie musicale) research group, of which he was elected an honorary member in 2012, and of dance studies.
His publications on the life and work of the last conductor, King Friedrich II of Prussia, Johann Friedrich Reichardt, run through his entire oeuvre. Right up to the end he never tired of directing interest to this personality, whose importance as a composer, reflective critical observer, and co-creator of the cultural-political turn after the French Revolution is misunderstood.
From 2004 to 2009 he edited the “Yearbook Music in Baden-Württemberg” together with his wife and Markus Zepf on behalf of the Society of Music History in Baden-Württemberg.
Walter Salmen died unexpectedly in 2013, after a short illness in Freiburg i.Br.