Willem Tanke studied organ and improvisation with Jan Welmers, music theory with Joep Straesser and electronic music with Ton Bruynel at Utrecht Conservatory. In 1985, he finished his studies with the Performance Diploma for Organ with full marks (the grade of 10 and honours), and also with diplomas for music theory and improvisation. 

In the early part of his career, Willem Tanke specialized in organ works by Olivier Messiaen, Max Reger and contemporary composers. His CD recordings of Messiaen's oeuvre, Reger's Variationen und Fuge über ein Originalthema Op. 73 and organ works by Jan Welmers, Ton Bruynel and Roderik de Man have been critically acclaimed. In 1994 Willem Tanke was the first (and up to now only) organist to perform Messiaen's complete organ works in Mexico.

In the 21st century, Willem Tanke became increasingly known as an improviser and a performing composer. His CDs My friend the Indian and other piecesImaginary Day, Two Wind Fantasies and Meditations for a Lent show a unique, innovative way of organ playing. 
As a pianist he stretches the boundaries of contemporary classical music and avant-garde jazz, among other things by playing complex, innovative grooves and using bird song passages by Messiaen in an entirely new context. The music critic Ralph Blakely regarded Willem Tanke in the American Record Guide as a leading musician in the 21st century.

He was a professor of organ as a main subject at Utrecht University of Professional Arts Education from 1988 until 2000. Since 2001, he has been teaching theory and improvisation at Codarts, University for the Arts, Rotterdam. 

Willem Tanke was awarded the "Diplôme de Médaille d’argent" of the "Société Académique d’Éducation et d’Encouragement “Arts-Sciences-Lettres” (Prix Thorlet) in 2000 and the Schnittger Dream Prize in 2015.