Tormis' father was a choral conductor , organist and music teacher. Tormis was already familiar with from childhood choral music. In 1942 he enrolled at the music school in Tallinn , but as a result of the Second World War and an illness he had to interrupt his training. In 1949 he went to study at the conservatory in Tallinn, but he moved in 1951 to the Moscow Conservatory . In 1956 he graduated with Vissarion Sjebalin.
Tormis initially worked as a music teacher (he Arvo Pärt still taught), but he built the business slowly. From 1969 he was a full-time composer.
Tormis, which mainly inspired felt by the choral works of Carl Orff and Zoltán Kodály , was soon named as a composer of vocal music , both in the Soviet Union (Estonia was in 1940 annexed by the Soviet Union and regained only in 1991 independence) and beyond. Occasionally he collided with censorship, but because most of his work is based on folk music , it was generally considered harmless.
Tormis is married to Lea Rummo (born in 1932), which has many publications are about dance and theater her name. Their son Tõnu Tormis (born in 1954) is a photographer .
Tormis was officially retired in 2000.
Especially in Eastern Europe are his compositions considered highlights of the twentieth-century choral repertoire. In recent years, interest in his music is growing in other countries, like the United States and the Netherlands. On 5 and 6 November 2010 took in Leiden and Amsterdam, a Tormis Festival, where the composer was present. 
Tormis has over 500 choral works to his name, most a cappella . He also wrote the music for 35 films and an opera, Luigelend ("Flight of the Swan ', 1965). Most of his music is inspired by the text, the melody or theme of an Estonian folk song.
Well-known choral works by Tormis are:
- Raua need mine ('A curse on the iron', 1972), which shamanistic incantations bet against the evil of war;
- Unustatud rahvad ('Forgotten peoples', 1970-89), the folk songs of now almost disappeared Finnish-Ugric peoples ( Webs , Woten , Ingriërs , Wepsen and Karelians ) for oblivion would save;
- Incantatio maris aestuosi (Spell a stormy sea ', 1996), which uses a Latin translation of an excerpt from the Finnish national epic Kalevala .
Kaks eesti runolaulu (Two Estonian Runo-songs', 1973/74) is a cycle consisting of two songs:
- Coast tunnen kodu ("How can I recognize my home) and
- Haned kadunud (Lost goose '),
for two sopranos and piano. Both are edits by poet Jaan Kaplinski authentic Estonian Runo-songs, songs in which a story is told alternately, with many two parties alliteration and incantatory repetitions.
A well-known saying of the composer: "I do not use folk music, folk music uses me. For me, folk music is no way to express myself on the contrary, I feel it a duty to give "the essence of folk music, the spirit, meaning and form again.
Many works of Tormis be put on record by the conductor Tõnu Kaljuste Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir with it.
- Overture No.. 1, "Kalevipoeg", for soprano, tenor, mixed choir and orchestra , 1956
- Kihnu pulmalaulud (Wedding Songs of the island Kihnu "), 1959
- Overture No.. 2 for orchestra , 1959
- Sügismaastikud (Autumn Landscape), 1964
- Luigelend ("Flight of the Swan ', opera), 1965
- Lauliku lapsepõli ("The youth of the singer), 1966
- Kalendrilaulud Eesti (Estonian Calendar Songs), 1966-67
- Maarjamaa ballaad ("Ballad of Mary's land"), 1967
- Raua need mine ('A curse on the iron'), 1972
- Kaks eesti runolaulu (Two Estonian Runo-songs), 1973/74
- Pikse litaania (Litany to Thunder "), 1974
- Ballaadid Eesti (Estonian ballads "), 1980
- Laulusild ("A Bridge of song), 1981
- Laivassa lauletaan (Singing aboard ship), 1983
- Varjele, Jumalan SOASTA ("God, save us from the war), 1984
- Unustatud rahvad ('Forgotten peoples'), 1970-89
- Piispa yes pakana ("The Bishop and the heathen"), 1992
- Incantatio maris aestuosi (Spell a stormy sea '), 1996