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

In the early part of his career, Willem Tanke specialized in the organ works of 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 the only) organist to perform Messiaen's complete organ works in Mexico. In 2006 and 2008 Willem Tanke gave solo recitals at the Holland Festival, with works of Ton Bruynel and Olivier Messiaen respectively.

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. 

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” in 2000 and the Schnittger Dream Prize in 2015.