Bernhard Heiden was bom in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany on August 24, 1910 to Ernst and Martha (Heimer) Heiden. He became interested in music at the age of five, and a year later composed his first pieces. When he began formal music instruction, he studied piano, clarinet, and violin, in addition to his lessons in theory and harmony. He was admitted to the Hochschule for Musik in Berlin in 1929, and studied composition under Paul Hindemith, whom he considered his principal teacher. In 1933, his last year at the Hochschule, he was awarded the Mendelssohn Prize in Composition, and was married in 1934 to Cola de Joncheere, pianist and fellow student at the Hochschule.
Bernhard and Cola came to the United States in 1935 and settled in Detroit, Michigan, where Bernhard taught on the faculty of the Art Center Music School for eight years. During this time, he also served as staff arranger for local radio station WWJ and conducted the Detroit Chamber Orchestra, as well as giving piano, harpsichord, and chamber music recitals, and supplying incidental music for theatrical productions at Wayne State University.
Having been naturalized as a United States citizen in 1941, Bernhard was inducted into the US Army in 1943 and became Assistant Bandmaster of the 445th Army Service Band, for which he wrote over one hundred arrangements. Following his discharge in 1945, he entered Cornell University, studying musicology with Donald Grout and receiving his M.A. degree in 1946. He joined the faculty of the Indiana University School of Music that same year, serving as chair of the composition department until 1974, and remaining on the faculty until his retirement in 1981. After retirement Bernhard's composing energies continued unabated, and he remained an active figure on the IU and Bloomington music scene until his death.