John Purser was born in Glasgow of Irish parents in 1942. He was educated at Lathallan School and Fettes College, and in 1963 took diplomas in Composition, Singing and Violoncello at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, where his composition teacher was Dr Frank Spedding. With the aid of a Caird Scholarship, he continued to study composition with Sir Michael Tippett and Dr Hans Gal. As a mature student he took a 1st in English Literature at the University of Glasgow (1980), followed by a PhD (1989), partly funded by the Carnegie Trust. He was the first Manager of the Scottish Music Information Centre 1985-1987 and was joint editor with James MacMillan of Stretto magazine.