Last year (2015) I wrote a thesis! It was for my honours in my Bachelor of Music from the University of Queensland. HARMONIC PROGRESSION AND PITCH-CENTRICITY IN JOHN ADAMS PHRYGIAN GATES . . . I know, such a fun title. 

Anyway, somehow, it won an award! The Donald Tugby Musicology Prize and Scholarship, for the most outstanding research contribution to the field of musicology in 2015 at the university.

It has a few issues, but hey, its my undergrad honours thesis.

So, if for some reason you have nothing better to do than read seventy-something pages of music analysis, then its your lucky day.


John Adams is one of the most frequently performed living composers in the realm of Western Art Music. As one of the foremost composers of minimalism, his solo piano work Phrygian Gates, to him, represents his initiation into this musical style, and as such, his “Opus one” (Hallelujah Junction 89). This work, representing a significant point in the development of Adams’ musical style, also represents a significant occurrence in the development in the Western-classical music: the emergence of tonality.

Past analysis of Phrygian Gates has uncovered great depth on the process-based compositional devices which Adams employs in the construction of this work, exploring its use of proportional and temporal constructs, additive and reductive motivic processes, and the organisation of diatonic pitch collections throughout the work. However, little research has been undertaken in the field of harmonic analysis, seeking to uncover the possibility of harmonic progressions and even functions. Furthermore, the past literature fails to question the underlying assumption that the modal structure which Adams’ claims is used throughout the work, that of alternating Lydian and Phrygian Modes, is perceived, or rather that the harmonies created and their functions serve to support these modal pitch centres.

This paper will investigate this aspect of Phrygian Gates, undertaking an analysis of harmony and harmonic progression Firstly, a micro-level analysis is undertaken in order to translate the slowly evolving texture of the work into vertical harmonies. Secondly, a macro-level analysis of harmony, voice-leading, and prolongation will show that (1) the opening section of the work creates conflicting interpretations of modality and pitch-centricity in each diatonic area, creating modal ambiguity and harmonic interest, and (2) the final section of the builds large-scale harmonic functions across diatonic areas, connecting the entire section in a single progression toward the final mixed-modal tonic. 


If you haven't heard John Adams' Phrygian Gates before, fear not, here is my favourite recording