Lyell Cresswell was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1944, and studied in Wellington, Toronto, Aberdeen and Utrecht. After some teaching at Glasgow University he joined Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff as Music Organiser (1978-80). He returned to Scotland as Forman Fellow in Composition at Edinburgh University until 1982 and spent the next three years as Cramb Fellow in Composition at Glasgow University. In 1978 he won the Ian Whyte Award for the orchestral work Salm, and in 1979 received the APRA Silver Scroll for his contribution to New Zealand music. His works have been recommended by the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers in 1979, 1981 and 1988. Since 1985 he has been a full-time composer based in Edinburgh. He is one of the artistic directors of ECAT (Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust). Since 1985 he has been a full-time composer based in Edinburgh.

In 2001 he received a Scottish Arts Council Creative Scotland Award to create a work of music theatre, in collaboration with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, involving issues of exile and identity; and in 2002 he was awarded an honorary D. Mus degree by Victoria University of Wellington (N.Z.) and the inaugural Elgar Bursary.

Lyell Cresswell's output comprises works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, choir, voice and solo instruments. Orchestral works include concertos for cello (commissioned for Musica Nova, Glasgow, 1984), accordion (BBC Proms, 1995), string quartet (commissioned by the City of Aberdeen, 1996), trombone (Scottish Chamber Orchestra, 1997), violin and soprano (commissioned by the BBC, 2001) and chamber orchestra (SCO, 2002). Other large-scale orchestral works include A Modern Ecstasy (1986), Voices of Ocean Winds (Radio New Zealand,1989) and Ylur (St Magnus Festival,1991). His recent works include the opera Good  Angel Bad Angel commissioned by the Hebrides Ensemble (2005) and Piano Concerto, commissioned by Jack Richards (2010).