Dent was the son of the landowner and politician John Dent. He was educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, where he sat the Classical Tripos in 1898. He was elected a Fellow of the college in March 1902 having distinguished himself in music both as researcher and a composer.
Dent was Professor of Music at Cambridge University from 1926 to 1941. He was President of the I.S.C.M. from its foundation in 1922 until 1938 and was President of the International Music Society between 1931 and 1949. He was a governor of Sadler's Wells Opera, and translated many libretti for it. He wrote influential books on Alessandro Scarlatti, Ferruccio Busoni, Handel, English operas and the operas of Mozart.
He was a Fellow of the British Academy and was awarded honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard Universities. After World War I, Dent sought to bring together the artistic communities of the two countries. After his death the Royal Musical Association instituted the Dent Medal for work in musicology.
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