Arthur Foote's music fits the mood of his time and place: turn-of-the century New England. It was lyrical, conservative, Germanic, not arrestingly original, but expressive and formally clear. He was a major figure in his day; many of his orchestral works were premiered by the Boston Symphony. Foote tended to favor abstract forms; he wrote suites and a serenade for string orchestra, a cello concerto, a violin sonata, three string quartets, and the like. But he did occasionally venture into program music, notably with his "symphonic prologue" Francesca da Rimini and his Four Character Pieces after Omar Khayyám for orchestra. His cantatas, now long-forgotten, drew inspiration from Romantic poetry and art, as exemplified by The Farewell of Hiawatha and The Wreck of the Hesperus.
After childhood piano studies, Foote entered Harvard in 1870, originally intending to study law, but also enrolled in the music curriculum. There, he studied with John Knowles Paine, and, in 1875 he received the first M.A. degree in music awarded in America. The next year, Foote attended the first Bayreuth festival, but the music of Wagner had less impact on his style than that of Schumann and Brahms', which was the case for most of Foote's New England circle of German-born or -trained musicians. In 1878 he became organist in Boston's First Unitarian Church, a post he held until 1910, but one that inspired him to write surprisingly little organ music. Instead, he concentrated on songs (more than 100), as well as chamber and symphonic music. He organized a chamber-music concert series in Boston that ran from 1881 until the turn of the century, and frequently played piano with the Kneisel Quartet between 1890 and 1910; with them, he performed many of his own works. A longtime music teacher (his 50-year career began as a private instructor and culminated in a 1921 appointment to the New England Conservatory), Foote was an early member of the Music Teachers National Association, and a founding member of the American Guild of Organists, of which he was president from 1909 to 1912. He also worked as an arranger and editor for the Boston publisher Arthur P. Schmidt, taking the pseudonyms Ferdinand Meyer and Carl Erich.
Foote also produced several manuals; his Modern Harmony in Its Theory and Practice, written with W.R. Spalding and first published in 1905, was still in print in the late 1970s under the title Harmony.