Ernesto Maia began his musical studies at the age of 12, under the guidance of the pianist Miguel Ângelo. H went to Paris in 1883 where he studied with the pianist Marie Jaëll (a pupil of Liszt, César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns). As a pianist and founding member of Orpheon Portuense (Porto Choir) between the late 19th and early 20th century he was very active as a teacher, and taught António Fragoso the piano. As a music critic, he wrote for the newspaper O Primeiro de Janeiro and for the magazine Arte Musical. Focused on decentralising state music teaching, in 1897 he submitted a first project to create a conservatory in Porto. He was part of the first teaching staff at the Conservatory in 1917, appointed deputy director and piano teacher, and then, between 1922 and 1924, took over from Bernardo Moreira de Sá as director.