López Cobos was born in Toro, Zamora, Spain. He studied at Complutense University of Madrid and graduated with a degree in philosophy. Later he studied conducting with Franco Ferrara and with Hans Swarowsky at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna.
From 1981 to 1990 he was general music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and from 1984 to 1988 he was music director of the Orquesta Nacional de España. From 1986 to 2001 he served as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and from 1990 to 2000 he was principal conductor of the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne. From 2003 to 2010 he served as music director of the Teatro Real in Madrid. He was a National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity. López Cobos died in Berlin, Germany, on 2 March 2018, age 78 of cancer-related causes.