Becker was born in Henderson, Kentucky, and began his formal musical education at the Cincinnati Conservatory, receiving his diploma in 1905. He then pursued graduate studies at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee, where he earned a doctorate in composition in 1923. His composition teachers included Alexander von Fielitz, Carl Busch, and Wilhelm Middelschulte. After a period of comparative obscurity, his career as an educator and administrator began in 1917 at the University of Notre Dame, where he taught for ten years. A devout Catholic, he relocated to another Catholic institution, the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he taught from 1929 until 1933. In the early 1930s he was especially active as a conductor, giving midwestern premieres of works by his close friend Charles Ives, as well as music by Carl Ruggles and Wallingford Riegger. From 1935 to 1941 he administered the Federal Music Project in Minnesota, and for a time was associate editor of the New Music Quarterly, founded by Henry Cowell, whom he had first met in 1928. He returned to teaching at Barat College in Lake Forest, Illinois from 1943 until his retirement in 1957. His activities diminished with his declining health, and he died in Wilmette, Illinois, one day short of his seventy-fifth birthday in 1961 (Gillespie 2001).
Cowell, Henry. 1933. "John J. Becker". In American Composers on American Music: A Symposium, edited by Henry Cowell, 82–84. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Reprinted in Essential Cowell: Selected Writings on Music by Henry Cowell, 1921–1964, edited by Richard Carter Higgins and Bruce McPherson, with a preface by Kyle Gann, 85-90. Kingston, NY: Documentext, 2002. ISBN 978-0-929701-63-9.
Crawford, Lawrence Eugene. 1988. "Harmonic and Melodic Organization in the Later Works of John J. Becker". PhD diss. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America.
Gann, Kyle. 1984. "The Percussion Music of John J. Becker". Percussive Notes 22, no. 3:26–41.
Gillespie, Don C. 1976. "John Becker, Musical Crusader of Saint Paul". The Musical Quarterly 62, no. 2 (April): 195-217.
Gillespie, Don C. 1977. "John Becker: Midwestern Musical Crusader". PhD diss. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina.
Gillespie, Don C. 1980. "John Becker’s Correspondence with Ezra Pound: the Origins of a Musical Crusader". Bulletin of Research in the Humanities 83:163–71.