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 performed Messiaen's complete organ works in Mexico and the Netherlands. In 2006 and 2008, he 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 and innovative way of organ playing. 
As a pianist, he combines complex grooves with atonal bird song passages of Messiaen in a new context.

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.

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.