Sheila Silver was born in Seattle, where she began piano studies at the age of five. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1968, having studied composition with Edward Dugger. The university's George Ladd Prix de Paris enabled her to study for two years in Europe, and she worked with Erhard Karkoschka in Stuttgart and Gyorgy Ligeti in Berlin and Hamburg. She earned her doctorate in music from Brandeis University, studying with Arthur Berger, Harold Shapero, and Seymour Shifrin. She also spent a summer at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, on a Koussevitzky fellowship, where she worked with Jacob Druckman. In 1979 she became a professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and, in 1997, she was appointed Charles and Andrea Bronfman Distinguished Visiting Professor of Judaic studies at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Silver's compositions span a wide range of media and subject matter. Among her Judaically related works in addition to Shirat Sara are a Psalm setting—Bar'khi nafshi et adonai (Worship the Lord, O My Soul)—for antiphonal choirs, which was commissioned for the Gregg Smith Singers; To the Spirit Unconquered, a piano trio inspired by Primo Levi's writings on the Holocaust; a piano concerto whose final movement was composed in the style of a Hassidic niggun; and a cello sonata that contains a theme and variations on an original tune for shalom aleikhem, one of the Sabbath eve z'mirot (table songs or hymns). Her large catalogue of general works includes a full-length opera, The Thief of Love, based on a modern reworking of a Bengali tale; two string quartets; Dance of Wild Angels, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and premiered by its New Music Group in 1990; Moon Prayer for string sextet; Theme and Variations for Bowed Vibraphone; chamber music in other assorted combinations; piano pieces; and song cycles. She has also written two film scores, many cabaret songs, and incidental theater music. Current works include Midnight Prayer for Orchestra (2003), commissioned by the Stockton Symphony; and Chant for contrabass and piano (2003).
Silver was the recipient of a Bunting Institute Fellowship; the Rome Prize; the American Institute of Arts and Letters' Composer Award; and awards and commissions from the Rockefeller Foundation (Bellagio Residency), the MacDowell Colony, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Barlow Foundation. She was also twice a winner of the ISCM National Composers Competition.