El-Dabh soon became a part of the New York new music scene of the 1950s, alongside such like-minded composers as Henry Cowell, John Cage, Edgard Varèse, Alan Hovhaness, and Peggy Glanville-Hicks. He obtained U.S. citizenship in 1961.
Among El-Dabh's works are four ballet scores for Martha Graham, including her masterpiece Clytemnestra (1958), as well as One More Gaudy Night (1961), A Look at Lightning (1962), and Lucifer (1975). Many of his compositions draw on Ancient Egyptian themes or texts, and one such work is his orchestral/choral score for the Sound and Light show at the site of the Pyramids at Giza, which has been performed there each evening since 1961.
El-Dabh's primary instruments are the piano and darabukha (an Egyptian goblet- or vase-shaped hand drum with a body made of fire-hardened clay), and consequently many of his works are composed for these instruments. In 1958 he performed the demanding solo part in the New York City premiere of his Fantasia-Tahmeel for darabukha and string orchestra (probably the first orchestral work to feature this instrument), with an orchestra under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. In 1959 he composed several works for an ensemble of percussion instruments from India, for the New York Percussion Trio.
Also a pioneer in the field of electronic music, El-Dabh first conducted experiments in sound manipulation with wire recorders in Cairo in 1944. In 1959, he was invited by Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky to work at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. He worked there sporadically until 1961, creating several tape works including at least two in collaboration with Luening. His electronic drama Leiyla and the Poet (released in 1964 on the LP Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center) is considered a classic of the genre.
Like Béla Bartók before him, El-Dabh has also conducted numerous research trips in various nations, recording and otherwise documenting traditional musics and using the results to enrich his compositions and teaching. From 1959 to 1964 the most significant of these trips included investigations of the musics across the length and breadth of Egypt and Ethiopia, with later fieldwork being conducted in Mali, Senegal, Niger, Guinea, Zaire, Brazil, and several other nations. During the 1970s, El-Dabh served as a consultant to the Smithsonian Institution and conducted research on the traditional puppetry of Egypt and Guinea.
El-Dabh served as associate professor of music at Haile Selassie I University (now Addis Ababa University) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, professor of African studies at Howard University (1966-69), and professor of music and pan-African studies at Kent State University (1969-91); he continues to teach courses in African studies there on a part-time basis. Among the awards and honors he has received are two Fulbright awards (1950 and 1967), three MacDowell Colony residencies (1954, 1956, and 1957), two Guggenheim Fellowships (1959-60 and 1961-62), two Rockefeller Foundation fellowships (1961 and 2001), a Meet-the-Composer grant (1999), an Ohio Arts Council grant (2000), and two honorary doctorates (Kent State University, 2001; and New England Conservatory, 2007).
El-Dabh is probably the best known composer of Arabic descent and his works are highly regarded in Egypt, where he is considered the foremost living composer among that nation's "second generation" of contemporary composers. He was invited back to his homeland in April 2002 for a festival of his music at the newly constructed Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt; most of the compositions presented were heard by the Egyptian public for the first time.
Many of El-Dabh's scores are published by the C. F. Peters Corporation and his music has been recorded by the Folkways and Columbia labels. The first biography of the composer, The Musical World of Halim El-Dabh by Denise A. Seachrist, was published by the Kent State University Press in 2003.
He has been a frequent performer and speaker at both the WinterStar Symposium and the Starwood Festival, where he performed with life-long friend and master drummer Babatunde Olatunji in 1997, and where El-Dabh's concert of traditional sacred African music was recorded in 2002. In 2003 he was part of a three-day tribute to the late Olatunji called the SpiritDrum Festival, with Muruga Booker, Badal Roy, Sikiru Adepoju, Jeff Rosenbaum, and Jim Donovan of Rusted Root In 2005 he performed and ran workshops at Unyazi 2005 in Johannesburg , which was the first electronic music symposium and festival to be hosted in Africa.
He lives with his wife in Kent, Ohio, and has three grown children.