Ralph Kirkpatrick studied Art History at Harvard University and went on to further studies with Nadia Boulanger and harpsichord revival pioneer Wanda Landowska in Paris, as well as Arnold Dolmetsch in Haslemere, Heinz Tiessen in Berlin and Günther Ramin in Leipzig. From 1933 to 1934, he taught at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. A Guggenheim Scholarship later enabled him to study manuscripts and sources in Europe.
From 1940 he was a professor at Yale University, where he published his biography of Domenico Scarlatti and a critical edition of Scarlatti's complete works (1953). These are now conventionally designated by their Kirkpatrick numbers (shown as Kk. --), which is now considered the standard, authoritative numbering system for Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas (despite at least two rival systems) (see opus number).
Kirkpatrick made a number of recordings of the harpsichord works of Bach (Archive recordings). He also produced an edition of Bach's Goldberg Variations (1938, G. Schirmer, Inc. New York - 37149) which includes extensive discussion of ornamentation, fingering, phrasing, tempo, dynamics, and general interpretation. He also authored the posthumous Interpreting Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier: A Performer's Discourse.
Kirkpatrick also played modern music, including Quincy Porter's Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra, Darius Milhaud's Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord, and the Double Concerto for Harpsichord, Piano and Chamber Orchestra by Elliott Carter, which was dedicated to him.
As a performer and recording artist, he became best known for his harpsichord performances of the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. He also recorded on the clavichord (e.g. Bach's two- and three-part inventions) and on the fortepiano (especially works by Mozart).
Ralph Kirkpatrick died in Guilford, Connecticut at the age of 72.