Born in Sydney, John Antill received his early musical training at St. Andrew's Cathedral Choir School (1914-1920). In 1920 he became an apprenticed mechanical draughtsman upon joining the NSW Government Railways. He left the railways in 1925 to become a full-time student at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music, where he studied composition with Alfred Hill and violin with Gerald Walenn.
After graduating he played in the NSW State Orchestra and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and between 1932 and 1934 he toured with the J.C. Williamson Imperial Opera Company as a tenor and rehearsal conductor. In 1936 he became assistant music editor with the Australian Broadcasting Commission in Sydney, supervisor of music in 1947, and federal music editor in 1949. He held this last ABC position until his retirement in 1968.
John Antill's compositions were mainly for ballet and opera, orchestra, voice and choir. He also composed many scores for documentary films. His 1961 ballet Snowy, with choreography by Margaret Barr, was the first Australian ballet to be televised in Australia.
Antill's best known work, Corroboree, which has been widely performed, recorded and broadcast, has assured his place in Australian music. Sir Eugene Goossens first conducted Corroboree in 1946 as a concert suite. Originally conceived as a ballet, it was finally produced by the National Theatre Ballet in 1950, with choreography by Rex Reid and decor by William Constable. A new version was made in 1954 by Beth Dean. A suite from Corroboree was also used by Stanton Welch for a work made in 1995.
Other choreographic music by Antill includes The Circus Comes to Town (1925), Capriccio (1925), Wakooka (1957) choreographed by Valrene Tweedie, G'Day Digger (1958) choreographed by Beth Dean, The Unknown Land (1958) choreographed by Coralie Hinkley, The Birth of the Waratah (1959) choreographed by Beth Dean, The First Boomerang (1959) choreographed by Beth Dean, Burragarong Dreamtime (1959) choreographed by Beth Dean and Black Opal (1961) choreographed by Dawn Swane.
Antill was awarded the OBE for his services to Australian music in 1971, and received an Honorary Doctorate in Creative Arts from the University of Wollongong in 1985.