He studied music and composition at the University of Wales, with Welsh composer William Mathias, and later in The Netherlands with Louis Andriessen and in 1989 was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy in composition from the University of Wales.
Since 1993 he has taught at the University of Bristol, where he is Professor of Composition and Applied Musicology and was Head of Music for four years (2009-2013). John Pickard is also conductor of the University of Bristol Symphony Orchestra and Choral Society. Pickard has composed a number of critically well-received orchestral and instrumental works, among them five symphonies and a number of symphonic works, including perhaps his best-known piece, The Flight of Icarus, which the San Francisco Chronicle called "a translucent and achingly lovely memorial to the fallen Icarus.. a serious contender for the most exciting musical premiere of 2006." His orchestral writing has been highly praised: in March 2008 The Times commented that "his orchestral mastery is total." while, in April 2008 The Guardian described his music as "at its best virtuosically effective, in a style that never seems either self-consciously conservative or too stubbornly middle-of-the-road." He has also composed a piano concerto, a Trombone Concerto The Spindle of Necessity, recorded by Christian Lindberg and five string quartets.
The Strad stated that the fourth quartet was "one of the best pieces of British chamber music to be heard for years", while Tempo, reviewing a recording of his quartets nos.
2, 3 and 4 offered the opinion that "if Pickard were never to write another quartet in his life, his place among the greats is secure". John Pickard is also the General Editor of the Elgar Complete Edition.