Little is known about his early life, but he is known to have been in Rome by 1539, at which time he was made a member of the Julian Chapel. Shortly thereafter he joined the Sistine Chapel, where he was appointed "magister puerorum" (director of the boys choir), and later was promoted to choirmaster. In the same year he published four of his total of six books of madrigals for four voices. Probably around 1553 he moved to France, where he spent the remainder of his life; his numerous chansons date from this and subsequent years. In 1557 he published a book of masses, dedicated to his employer, Charles de Guise, Cardinal of Lorraine (Arcadelt was maître de chapelle, i.e. choirmaster for him).
Arcadelt's style is refined, pure, melodious, and simple, and his music was immensely popular in Italy and France for more than a hundred years; his first book of madrigals was reprinted 58 times between c1538 and 1654, a spectacular print run for the time. An additional hint to his popularity is the frequency with which anonymous compositions were attributed to him. Likely his popularity was due to his gift for capturing the Italian spirit and marrying it with the technical perfection of the Franco-Flemish harmonic and polyphonic style; in addition he wrote catchy tunes which were easy to sing.
His most famous madrigal is the delightful Il bianco e dolce cigno, which is notable for its clear phrasing, exquisite singability, and clever use of repetition. The style represented in this madrigal was influential on the next generation of madrigal composers, including Palestrina.