Friedrich Maternus Niecks was born in Düsseldorf, son of a conductor and teacher; his grandfather was also a professional musician. He studied music under his father and later under Leopold Auer and others (violin) and Julius Tausch (piano and composition). At age 13 he made his debut playing Charles Auguste de Bériot's Violin Concerto No. 2, then joined the Musikverein orchestra until the age of 21.
In 1868 he expressed a desire to move to Great Britain, and Alexander Mackenzie invited him to settle in Scotland, where he became viola player in Mackenzie's string quartet in Edinburgh and an organist and teacher in Dumfries. In 1879 he became a regular contributor to The Musical Times.
In 1884 he published a Concise Dictionary of Musical Terms, in two editions. In 1888 he published his magnum opus, Frédéric Chopin as Man and Musician, with a German edition coming out in 1889. This was the first comprehensive biography of Chopin.