Meale was born in Sydney and studied piano with Winifred Burston at the NSW State Conservatorium of Music, as well as clarinet, harp, history and theory, before studying at the University of California, Los Angeles and other American institutions.
Initially firmly part of the avant garde amongst Australian composers, Meale experienced a stylistic rethink in the 1970s, abandoning an exclusively atonal approach in his orchestral work Viridian (1979) and his 2nd String Quartet (1980) for a polytonal approach, and in later works embracing a frank tonality, with fin-de-siecle overtones, whilst retaining an individual voice.
He is best known for the 1986 opera Voss, with libretto by David Malouf based on the novel of the same title by Patrick White. Malouf also collaborated with Meale on his second operatic project, Mer de glace (1986–91), a tableaux-like juxtaposition of some ideas of the novel Frankenstein alongside the real dealings of Mary Shelley with Shelley and Byron.
In 2000, Meale was conferred Doctor of Letters honoris causa by the University of New England.