As a student, he read PPE at Oxford and earned a doctorate in sociology from UC Berkeley. He is the author of many influential books, including The Sociology of Rock (Constable, 1978), Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure and the Politics of Rock 'n' Roll (Pantheon, 1981), Art into Pop (Methuen, 1987 - written with Howard Horne), Music for Pleasure: Essays on the Sociology of Pop (Cambridge University Press, 1988), and Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Oxford University Press, 1996). He has also co-edited key anthologies in the interdisciplinary field of popular music studies, including: On Record: Rock, Pop & the Written Word (Routledge, 1990), Sound and Vision: Music Video Reader (Routledge, 1993), and The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
More recently, Frith has edited a four-volume set, Popular Music: Critical Concepts in Media & Cultural Studies (Routledge, 2004), and published a collection of his key essays, Taking Popular Music Seriously: Selected Essays (Ashgate, 2007). He is the co-author of a three-volume work, The History of Live Music in Britain since 1950, the first volume of which will be published in March 2013 by Ashgate.
Frith has chaired the judges of the Mercury Music Prize since it began in 1992. His popular music criticism has appeared in a range of popular presses including the Village Voice and The Sunday Times. He taught in the Sociology Department at the University of Warwick and the English Studies Department at Strathclyde University. In 1999, he went to the University of Stirling as Professor of Film and Media. In 2006, he took up his current post, Tovey Chair of Music at the University of Edinburgh. He is the brother of guitarist and composer Fred Frith and neuroscientist Chris Frith.
According to author Bernard Gendron, writing in his 2002 book Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde, Frith "has done the most to lay the foundations for the analysis of rock criticism". Frith was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to higher education and popular music.