Guiraud began his schooling in Louisiana under the tutelage of his father, Jean-Baptiste-Louis Guiraud, who had won the Prix de Rome in 1827. At age 15, he set a full-length libretto about King David to music that he and his father had found on a trip to Paris. The result was David, an opera in three-acts, which had a resounding success at the Theatre d'Orléans in New Orleans in 1853, sealing his future.
In December of the same year, Guiraud sailed back to France to continue his musical education. He studied piano under Marmontel and composition under Halévy at the Paris Conservatoire. Remarkably gifted as a student, he was awarded first prize for piano in 1858. He won the Prix de Rome the next year, notably, the only instance of both father and son obtaining this prize. He became close friends with Camille Saint-Saens, Emile Paladilhe, Théodore Dubois, and especially Georges Bizet.
Guiraud entered his profession by writing one-act stage works that served as "curtain raisers" for evenings of theatrical entertainment. His first important stagework, Sylvie, which premiered at the OpÃ©ra Comique in 1864, was a popular success and established his reputation in Paris. In August 1870, the impact of the Franco-Prussian War hit Paris while his opÃ©ra-ballet Le Kobold was only 18 days into its run. All of the theaters closed their doors. Guiraud enlisted in the infantry and fought for France to the war's end in 1871.
Beginning in 1876, Guiraud taught at the Paris Conservatoire. He was a founding member of the Société Nationale de Musique and the author of an excellent treatise on instrumentation. In 1891, Guiraud was elected member of the Académie des beaux-arts and was appointed professor of composition at the Conservatoire to replace Victor Massé. Guiraud's teaching methods for harmony and orchestration were highly respected and recognized in musical circles. His musical theories had a strong and beneficial influence on Claude Debussy, whose notes were published by Maurice Emmanuel in his book devoted to Pelléas et Mélisande. André Bloch, Mélanie Bonis, Paul Dukas, Achille Fortier, André Gedalge and Erik Satie are also counted among his students.