The University's history begins in 1850 as the city Conservatorium der Musik in Coeln with its primary focus being on amateur music education. Around the turn of the century, classes were divided into preparatory, conservatory and master classes, introducing a stronger orientation towards professional music education. World War I and II and their sociopolitical implications caused significant setbacks in educational continuity and enrollment numbers.
A crucial step toward professional music education was taken in 1925 when new study and examination regulations came into effect and the University was accredited as Staatliche Hochschule für Musik (after Leipzig and Berlin), further differentiating its educational fields. In 1945, the institute is divided into a city conservatory and a University of Music run by the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia offering only professional degree programs.
The new association Staatliche Hochschule für Musik Rheinland is formed in 1972 by incorporating the independent conservatories in Aachen and Wuppertal. The name is changed to Hochschule für Musik Köln in 1987 when new legislation on art universities goes into effect granting greater direct responsibility to the universities and making them largely autonomous.
After the University is reorganized in 2009, the Hochschule für Musik Köln is renamed Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Köln. The aim of the name change is to increase public awareness for a department of the University that is essential in shaping the image of the University.