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Davies studied at the University of Manchester and at the Royal Manchester College of Music (amalgamated into the Royal Northern College of Music in 1973), where his fellow students included Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Elgar Howarth and John Ogdon. Together they formed New Music Manchester, a group committed to contemporary music. After graduating in 1956, he briefly studied with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome before working as Director of Music at Cirencester Grammar School from 1959 to 1962.
In 1962, he secured a Harkness Fellowship at Princeton University, with the help of Aaron Copland and Benjamin Britten, where he studied with Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt and Earl Kim. He then moved to Australia, where he was Composer in Residence at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide from 1965-66.