After studying piano with Friedrich Wieck, Clara Schumann and Ignaz Moscheles, Bülow was able to experience the music life of Leipzig during his visits to the city. Influenced by the musical conservatism that was wide-spread at the time, he had developed a lasting interest in the works of Richard Wagner since early adolescence. Even after Bülow started studying law in 1848 (Leipzig, Berlin), he continued his education in music. During the autumn of 1850, he followed Richard Wagner to Zurich and became a student of Franz Liszt in Weimar. His first position was that of a piano instructor at Stern Conservatory. Additionally, he privately instructed Ellen Franz, future Helene Freifrau von Heldburg, and Cosima Liszt, whom he married in 1857. In 1864, King Ludwig II of Bavaria called him to Munich, where he became Hofkapellmeister (Court Music Director) in 1867. While still being married to Bülow, Cosima gave birth to two daughters of Richard Wagner. Notwithstanding, Bülow continued to support the composer tirelessly. He conducted, among others, the premieres of Tristan (June 10, 1865) and Die Meistersänger von Nürnberg (June 21, 1868). After divorcing his wife, Bülow embarked upon a restless concert life, which he temporarily gave up only after being offered the position of Hofkapellmeister in Hanover. In 1880, he was employed as director of the Meiningen Hofkapelle following the intermediation of Helene Freifrau von Heldburg. Subsequently, he led the orchestra to a position of excellence and international acclaim. Tours throughout Europe (Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, England, Bohemia) furthered the orchestra's fame, and helped set enduring performance standards.
Characteristic elements of these standards are the central figure of the conductor, the interpretation and rehearsal culture, program structure, as well as performances based on the composer's instructions and guest performance tours. Another great influence was the close collaboration and friendship with Johannes Brahms starting in the autumn of 1881, as Bülow aided in the propagation and circulation of the composer's great instrumental and choral works. An example of the orchestra's influence is the impulse after a Curt Orchestra guest performance in January of 1882, which led to the founding of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Bülow's profile decidedly influenced Meiningen's development into the "Muse's Court" between Weimar and Bayreuth under Duke Georg II.