Schafer began studies rather diffidently (being unsure whether he would rather be an artist) at the University of Toronto in 1952, after earning a licentiate in piano from the Royal College of Music, London (Ontario). He was forced to leave in 1955 when he refused to apologize for laughing at his choral music professor. He did have time to acquire a strong neo-Classical compositional technique (as seen in the Concerto for Harpsichord and Eight Wind Instruments, 1954) from his teacher John Weinzweig, the first influential avant-garde Canadian composer. Perhaps most important to Schafer's later thinking was the contact he had at the University with Marshall McLuhan, especially with his theories of communication and the freewheeling use of evidence from widely varying sources to support them.
Schafer started an intensive course of self-education in philosophy, languages, and literature. This continued when he moved to Vienna in 1956, ostensibly to study music; in reality his two-year stay was spent studying medieval German, only one of the many obscure languages and cultures in which he would take an interest. The first composition that Schafer acknowledges as important springs from this era: the Minnelieder, a setting of 13 medieval German poems, for voice and chamber ensemble (1956). In 1958 Schafer moved to Great Britain, where he was a journalist, and where he prepared a performing edition of Ezra Pound's opera Le Testament.
Returning to Canada in 1961, Schafer organized, with other composers, a series of "Ten Centuries Concerts" in Toronto which presented rare music from all eras. Even before his return he had begun to compose more, having incorporated a flexible kind of serialism as a musical technique, and social improvement as a philosophy. Schafer became a professor at the then-recently created, and quite radical, Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, in 1965. During his ten-year stay there, he created the World Soundscape Project, under the auspices of which have been made many different attempts to study the sounds around us, their effects on us, and what can be done to make their quality better. Schafer applied his soundscape studies to education, which resulted in a few well-known booklets, such as The Composer in the Classroom (1965) and Ear Cleaning (1967). In all cases, Schafer's concern has been to get his readers to open up their ears and listen critically to their environment, and especially to noises caused by machines and other non-natural sources.
In 1975 Schafer moved to a farmhouse near Maynooth, Ontario, and in 1987 to another in Indian River, Ontario, to escape the "sonic sewers" of city life. The focus of Schafer's compositional career through the 1980s and 1990s was the immense opera/theater cycle Patria, which has grown from an initial plan for two pieces in 1966 (which were originally to be performed simultaneously) to its present plan of 12 pieces, of which most have been completed. The Patria cycle is intended as a practical example of Schafer's "theatre of confluence" theory, a sort of expanded Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk involving all the senses and in more varied settings.