Remembered for his work in the fields of ethnomusicology and sociomusicology, Small is perhaps most famous for inventing the term "musicking" to express his idea that music is an active process rather than a static object. He outlined this idea in his 1998 work Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening.
After studying at both Otago University and the Victoria University of Wellington, he taught music in both New Zealand and England.
A composer as well as an author, he wrote choral and orchestral pieces as well as film scores. His best known works include Actions for Chorus – Some Maori Place Names and The Story of Soil.
He and his sister Rosemary grew up in Palmerston North, New Zealand. In the mid 1980s, he settled in Spain with his longtime partner, Jamaican dancer and vocalist Neville Braithwaite; he and Braithwaite married in 2006.
He and Pietro Spada were both prominent 20th-century musicologists.