Murrill was born in London. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music from 1925 to 1928 and thereafter was organ scholar at Worcester College, Oxford, from 1928 to 1931. In 1933 he married the concert pianist Alice Margaret Good. Murrill's second wife was the cellist Vera Canning. He was for a time in the 1930s organist of Christ Church, Lancaster Gate, London and St Thomas's Church, Regent Street, London.
From 1933 until his early death, he was Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music. He was for a time in the late 1930s Musical Director of The Group Theatre. He also worked for the BBC from 1936 onwards (save for a period in the Intelligence Corps between 1942 and 1946, during part of which he time he served at Bletchley Park), reaching the post of Head of Music in 1950. He died in London.
His works include a jazz opera, Man in Cage, which was performed in 1930 while he was still at university. He wrote film scores for And So To Work (1936) and The Daily Round (1937), both early films from the director Richard Massingham, as well as incidental music for two plays by Auden, The Dance of Death and The Dog Beneath the Skin. He wrote two cello concertos, of which the second The Song of the Birds (1951), written for and dedicated to Pablo Casals and quoting the popular Catalan song of the same name, has been called his "masterpiece". He also wrote some chamber and vocal works, as well as several piano pieces.
However, his most frequently performed works now are his choral and organ works: his setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in E major (published in 1947), an organ piece called Carillon, and his arrangement for organ of the orchestral march Crown Imperial by William Walton. His piano duet arrangement of Walton's First Symphony was published by OUP. He was also responsible for the official, martial orchestral version of the Indian national anthem, approved by Jawaharlal Nehru before independence in 1947.
Writing in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Ronald Crichton says that Murrill's affinities were Francophile and mildly middle-Stravinskian, both influences tempered by an English take on neo-classicism.
- Lewis Foreman, liner notes on the premiere recording of the work (Raphael Wallfisch [cello], BBC Concert Orchestra, c. Vernon Handley) on White Line Classics CD WHL2153
- R. Crichton, 'Murrill, Herbert', Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 4 February 2007)