He received his first piano lessons in Belgrade when he was seven. Five years later, he was invited to Moscow to continue his studies at the Central Music School with Evgeny Timakin. Later he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory. In 1976 he began studying intensively with the Georgian pianist and teacher Aliza Kezeradze, who passed on to him the tradition of the Liszt-Siloti school. They were married from 1980 until her death in 1996.
Pogorelić won the Casagrande Competition in Terni, Italy in 1978 and the Montreal International Music Competition in 1980. However he became famous for the prize he didn't win. In 1980 he entered the International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw and was eliminated in the third round. One of the adjudicators, Martha Argerich, proclaimed him a genius and left the jury in protest.
Pogorelić gave his debut recital in New York's Carnegie Hall in 1981. He debuted in London the same year. Since then, he has played many solo recitals worldwide and has played with some of the world's leading orchestras including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Orchestre de Paris and many others. Pogorelić soon began recording for Deutsche Grammophon and in 1982 he became one of their exclusive artists. He has made recordings of works by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Haydn, Liszt, Mozart, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Scarlatti, Scriabin and Tchaikovsky.
In 1986 Pogorelić established a foundation in Croatia to further the careers of young performers from his homeland. Since 1989, the Ivo Pogorelić Festival in Bad Wörishofen gives young artists the opportunity to perform with renowned artists. In December 1993, Pogorelić founded the "International Solo Piano Competition" in conjunction with the Ambassador Foundation in Pasadena, California. Its mission is to help young musicians develop their career with the first prize of USD 100,000.
In 1994 he helped to provide medical support for the people of Sarajevo by setting up a foundation that organized charity concerts. He has helped to raise money for the rebuilding of Sarajevo, the Red Cross and the fight against illnesses such as cancer and multiple sclerosis. In 1988 he was named an Ambassador of Goodwill by UNESCO.