Sorrel Hays was born Doris Ernestine Hays in Memphis, Tennessee, and moved to Chattanooga with her parents and two brothers when she was four. She was valedictorian of the Central High School senior class. She studied piano for eight years with Harold Cadek at the Cadek Conservatory, graduating from the Conservatory at the University of Chattanooga in 1963.
She received a Maclellan Foundation Scholarship to study piano and harpsichord at the Hochschule für Musik in Munich, Germany. With fellowships from the Bavarian Ministry of Culture, she remained in Munich for three years, and was awarded the Diploma Meisterklasse. She earned a Master of Music degree at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, on a University Fellowship. After teaching at Cornell College in Iowa, she moved to New York City where she coached new keyboard music with pianist Hilde Somer.
In 1971 she was awarded first prize in the Gaudeamus Competition for Interpreters of New Music at Rotterdam, and began her international career as a performer of contemporary music. She recorded many programs of new music, her own and others, at broadcasting stations in Germany, Holland, Italy and Yugoslavia, and appeared in numerous festivals, including the Como Festival and Pro Musica Nova Bremen, and was invited to celebrate John Cage's 60th birthday by performing his Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra with the Orchestra at the Hague.
In 1985 she adopted the name Sorrel, (her maternal grandmother's family name was Sorrels), because she likes its sound. Hays began her international career as composer/pianist when she won first prize in the Gaudeamus Competition for Interpreters of Contemporary Music at Rotterdam, Holland, and recorded programs of twentieth century music for Atlantic/Finnadar Records and European broadcasting stations.
Sorrel directed the first American lecture concert series on women's music at the New School for Social Research in 1976. In 1978 she gave the premiere of Henry Cowell's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. She has been closely identified with the cluster music of Cowell, and is one of the world's foremost performers of cluster piano music.
From 1974 to 1984 Sorrel was consultant in new music for a revolutionary new text series for children called MUSIC, published by Silver Burdett. She wrote a component for the series about composing and also many compositions for children, found on the series recordings. During this period Hays taught summer workshops across the United States, for classroom and music teachers, introducing them to graphic notations, electronic music techniques and philosophies of experimental composers.
Hays was on the faculties and guest lecturer at numerous universities in the United States. In 1998 she was consulting designer and director of the new graduate program in electronic music at Yildiz University, Istanbul and gave lectures on her music at Vassar College and Brooklyn College.