G Song by Terry Riley

Category: 20th Century Music
Writer: Frankie Chan
As an iconic American composer, Terry Riley (born 1935) is always considered as a minimalist. However, this kind of thoughts would be ignoring part of his creativity. In fact, Riley added plenty elements in his compositions since 1970s, especially when he started collaborating with the Kronos Quartet. Riley's composing style is very extensive, including improvisation, polyrhythm and jazz. He adopted classical elements, such as instrumentation, musical forms, structure and tonality. He also combined the elements from different periods to create unique musical textures. This research focuses on Terry Riley’s String Quartet, G Song. The research will be divided into two parts. The first part introduces Riley’s life and the background of G Song. The second part focuses on music analysis, including the musical structure "Two forms in one work"; The harmony "Unresolved Dissonance"; The rhythm "Metric Modulation"; The baroque "Canon"; The modern "Pointillism". The purpose of this study is to discuss how Riley combined classicism and modernism into a work, and discuss why the statement "Terry Riley is considered as minimalist" would be ignoring part of his story.

Classicism and Modernism

Classicism and Modernism represents tradition and innovation. The styles can be distinguished by analyzing the elements of an artwork.

Classicism, according to Kuiper's explanation in Encyclopedia Britannica “When used to refer to an aesthetic attitude, Classicism invokes those characteristics normally associated with the art of antiquity—harmony, clarity, restraint, universality, and idealism”[1]. In music, usually, the elements can be found from the compositions of 17 to 19 centuries. This study will focus on the harmony, clarity, restraint, universality, and idealism to discuss the classicism of Riley's work.

Modernism, according to Groove Music Online “Modernism is a consequence of the fundamental conviction among successive generations of composers since 1900 that the means of musical expression in the 20th century must be adequate to the unique and radical character of the age”[2]. The elements that mostly appeared after 1901 will be used as a part of modernism in this study.

Terry Riley’s Biography

Terry Riley is an American composer, born in Colfax in California in 1935, the pioneer of minimalism. He was influenced by Jazz and Indian classical music. His compositions include Jazz and Avant-rock music. In 2015, he mentioned that the popular music was his first inspiration in composing music “Well, you know, I grew up in the age of radio, so I liked the people that I heard on the radio, like Bing Crosby. I found all music to have really powerful transmission, so whatever I was listening to sounded really great to me”.[3]

Riley got his master’s degree in composition at the University of California in Berkeley. After graduate, he studied Indian classical music with the master of Indian classical voice Pandit Pran Nath (1918–1996) over 26 years. It brings Riley a strong impression in composing and performing Indian music.

Riley met the founder of the Kronos Quartet, David Harrington, when they were both teaching at the Mills College in California. Harrington said “I'd never met anybody that had the aura, the sensibility, the feeling that I got from Terry Riley that very first time”.[4] Riley and Kronos Quartet started collaborating since 1970s.

Riley’s signature composition was the In C, which is considered as the landmark of minimalism, written in 1964. When he talked about In C, he also recalled how jazz music is important to him “I would not have written ‘In C’ if I never had played jazz”.[5]

Terry Riley's G Song

G Song was the first composition commissioned by the Kronos Quartet in 1980. Riley mentioned “When I write a score for them, it's an unedited score. I put in just a minimal amount of dynamics and phrasing marks. It's essentially a score like Vivaldi would have done… At the end of the process, it makes the performers actually own the music”.[6] In the musical score, it does not have dynamic and articulation markings, the performers need to decide how to shape the music by themselves. It is considered as Indeterminacy, an element that always be discussed in the compositions of classical and modern music.

The G Song for Kronos Quartet was based on an earlier work by Riley himself, which was written in 1973 for a French film "Le secret de la vie" (English: Lifespan). The music was written for a saxophone improvisation with a keyboard accompaniment. In which, the keyboard introduced scale-like melodic passages, followed by saxophone improvisation, and alternating both accompanied and improvised sections.

The melody from the keyboard (1973) is introduced by the first violin (1980). The saxophone improvisation (1973) is re-written for the viola (1980).


The analysis section can be divided in to six parts: The musical structure will be introduced by arc diagram; Main melody and harmonic materials will be analyzing by the Theme A & B; The unresolved dissonance will be introduced by analyzing the last measure of different variations; The metric modulation will be shown by graphic explanation; The canon phrasings will be shown by score analysis; Pointillistic texture will be introduced by explaining the sound effect.

Two forms in one work

The G Song is written in polyphonic texture, each instrument plays with an unique melodic and rhythmic pattern. Two musical forms are combined into the work, they are the Double Variations and Ternary Form (Figure 1).

G Song by Terry Riley

Figure 1. Arc Diagrams for G Song (String Quartet)

Double Variation

In the recording, played by the Kronos Quartet, it begins with a section that is not written in the musical score, which is based on the first theme of the music while played without the viola. This section is marked “Intro” in the Arc diagram.

In terms of Double Variation, the music contains of Theme A (mm. 1-15) & B (mm. 16-32) and Variation A1 (mm. 33-47), B1 (mm. 48-78), A2 (mm. 79-98), B2 (mm. 99-114), A3 (mm. 115-146), B3 (mm. 147-160), A4 (mm. 161-215), and B4 (mm. 215-246). It creates a structure of A-B-A1-B1-A2-B2-A3-B3-A4-B4.

G Song by Terry Riley

Figure 2. Arc Diagrams (Double Variation)

Moreover, as it is alternating between the small A and B sections, it can also be regarded as one single large theme (grouping A-B) and serval variations (grouping A1-B1, A2-B2, etc.). In details, they are the Theme (mm. 1-32), Variation 1 (mm. 33-78), Variation 2 (79-114), Variation 3 (mm. 115-160), and Variation 4 (mm. 161-246). In simple words, the structure can also be regarded as A-B'-B''-B'''.

G Song by Terry Riley

Figure 3. Arc Diagrams (Theme and Variations)

Ternary Form

In terms of Ternary form, the “Da capo al Fine” is marked at the measure 246, and the “Fine” is marked at measure 47. The Theme A to Variation A1 (mm. 1-47) will be repeated after the end of Variation 4 (m. 246). Therefore, the measure 1-47 can be regarded as the A section, measure 47-246 can be regarded as the B section, followed by the repeating A section. As a result, the Ternary form A-B-A.

G Song by Terry Riley

Figure 4. Arc Diagrams (Ternary Form)

Theme A & B

The G Song is written in G minor with Jazz chord progressions, which uses the seventh, ninth and eleventh chords. The main material of the Theme and Variation A - the G melodic minor scale (ascending) - is introduced by the first violin.

The G melodic minor scale (ascending), is played with an alternating rhythmic pattern. At the end of the first phrase, the notes D, C, D (first violin) is introduced at the first beat of the second measure, followed by a half-beat later in the third measure, and the second beat of the fourth measure . At the same time, the harmonic progression is changed by the cello in each measure. As a result, in measure 1-4, four harmonies are played by the cello, and three melodies are played by the first violin, formed as a staggered texture. This phrasing structure is introduced again in the third phrase (mm. 9-12) while the second phrase is different. The stepwise motions are all in the downbeat of the measures (mm. 6-8).

The modal scales, G Aeolian and Phrygian, has been introduced. It is mainly written in Aeolian scale, but changed to Phrygian in measure 6.

In Theme B, the Ground Bass (G, F, Eb, D) is introduced by the cello in the downbeats of measure 16-19. This melodic pattern was frequently used in the Renaissance and Jazz music

At the end of Theme B, the structure of scale is modified. It begins with a diatonic scale, followed by chromatic scale. This pattern is frequently used in the following sections of Variation B. It creates a more significant contrast in the melodic progression between "Theme A and Variations A" and "Theme B and Variations B".

Unresolved Dissonance

At the end of serval sections, the phrase ends with an unresolved dissonance chord, which is called dominant seventh chord with split third.

G Song by Terry Riley

Figure 5. Dominant seventh chord with split third

A dominant seventh chord with split third is presented in measure 47, which is the end of the music ("Fine"). It is based on the dominant chord of G minor (D, F#, A, C) with adding the F-natural. The F# and F-natural are played by the viola, a half-step and dissonance has been played without a resolve motion. This chord has been used frequently in the Romantic era and Jazz music. It is considered as both classical and modern elements.

Metric Modulation

One of the significant rhythmic materials of the piece is the metric modulation, which uses a rhythmic value to build other rhythmic pattern “Metric Modulation uses a part of a unit of pulse from a previous tempo to create a new tempo”. (Farberman, 1999)

In Variation A3, the material of each instrument is based on the value of 16th note, to create different values for other instruments. Twelve 16th note are played by the first violin, four dotted 8th note by the second violin, six 8th note by the viola, and three 4th note by the cello.

G Song by Terry Riley

Figure 6. Metric Modulation

The following score shows a simplified version of the metric modulation (Figure 7). It is based on the smallest rhythmic value (the 16th note) by the first violin while doubling the value for the viola, tripling for the second violin, and quadrupling for the cello.

G Song by Terry Riley

Figure 7. Simplified version of metric modulation in measure 113

The metric modulation has been used in African music and Bach’s music, and widely used in Jazz music. “This concept has been used in African music and even by Bach, but it became popular in jazz through the influence of Miles Davis’ drummer Tony William”.[7] In other words, the metric modulation is considered as both classical and modern elements.

Canon Phrasing

A compositional technique of baroque, canon, is introduced in the variation B2. In the measure 107-110, the second violin introduces a new rhythmic pattern that based on the previous metric modulation. The viola repeats the same melodic and rhythmic material with a half-beat later and followed by the first violin. This kind of canon phrasing is played continuously in this section. As the canon phrasing structure had been frequently used during the Renaissance and Baroque period, it is regarded as a classical element.


The phrasing structure is blurred in Variation B4 because of the pointillistic texture, which is a kind of impressionism - a composing technique in tricking ears "to listen and imagine more" than the sum of its notes. “Pointillism, also called divisionism and chromo-luminarism, in painting, the practice of applying small strokes or dots of colour to a surface so that from a distance they visually blend together”.[8]

In this section, Riley used lots of pauses in the music. It blurred the melody from each instrument. When the quartet plays together, it blends the sound from the elements of previous Themes and Variations, creating an new texture for the piece.

As mentioned, since it is a kind of impressionism, it is considered as a modern element.


The piece, G Song for string quartet by Terry Riley combines different elements of classicism and modernism. The classical elements contain the musical structures (i.e. double variation and ternary form), tonal melody, canon phrasing. The modern elements contain the jazz chord progressions and pointillism. There are several elements sharing both classicism and modernism, such as the metric modulation and unresolved dissonance.

The following chart shows the connection of classicism and modernism. As the music is written in 13 sections, the number besides the elements represent how many times the element shown in different sections.

Riley did not write dynamics and phrasing marks into the score, the phrasing structure of the whole music (13 sections) will be decided by the performers themselves, therefore, it is considered as indeterminacy. The musical structure is written in Double Variation and Ternary Form. The tonal melody had been used for 12 sections. The technique of metric modulation appeared in 6 sections. The whole music is based on Jazz Chord Progressions. There are 8 sections end with unresolved dissonance. The canon phrasing had been used in 2 different sections. The pointillistic technique had been used in 6 sections.

G Song by Terry Riley

Figure 8. The Combination of Classicism and Modernism


To conclude, this study focuses on Terry Riley's G Song in discussing how Riley combine both classicism and modernism into a work. The result shows Riley added plenty classical and modern music elements into his music. As Riley is always considered as minimalist, especially after his work In C (1964), it is believed that this kind of thoughts is evidently ignoring part of his creativity and great compositions, such as, G Song.



[1] Kuiper, Kathleen. n.d. Classicism and Neoclassicism. Encyclopedia Britannica

[2] Botstein, Leon. 2001. Modernism. Grove Music Online

[3] Tsioulcas, Anastasia. 2015. 'The Most Beautiful Offerings': Terry Riley At 80. National Public Radio.

[4] Tsioulcas, Anastasia. 2015. 'The Most Beautiful Offerings': Terry Riley At 80. National Public Radio.

[5] Lee, Hye Won Cecilia. 2019. Interview | Terry Riley: “I Would Not Have Written ‘In C’ If I Never Had Played Jazz”. Museland Media Inc.

[6] Schwarz, Robert. 1990. Music; A New Look t A Major Minimalist. The New York Times Company.

[7] Charetteaug. Brian. 2018. Time Trickery: Odd Time Signatures, Metric Modulation, and Groove Displacement A masterclass from the May 2014 issue of KEYBOARD. A Maven Channel.

[8] Blumberg, Naomi. n.d. Pointillism. Encyclopedia Britannica.

The content is writing for the purpose of sharing only, and conducted by the following tutor(s). Please correct us if there are any deficiencies.

Contributing Writer(s)

Frankie Chan

Frankie Chan

California Baptist University (US), Hong Kong Baptist University


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Charetteaug. Brian. 2018. Time Trickery: Odd Time Signatures, Metric Modulation, and Groove Displacement A masterclass from the May 2014 issue of KEYBOARD. A Maven Channel.

Eddins, Stephen. n.d. Les Yeux Fermés / Lifespan (Review). AllMusic. Retrieved 22 May, 2021 from https://www.allmusic.com/album/les-yeux-ferm%C3%A9s-lifespan-soundtracks-mw0000570991

Farberman, Harold. 1999. The Art of Conducting Technique: A New Perspective. Alfred Music.

Heisinger, Brent. 1989. "American Minimalism in the 1980s." American Music 7, no. 4: 430-47. doi:10.2307/3051914.

Kuiper, Kathleen. n.d. Classicism and Neoclassicism. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 22 May, 2021 from https://www.britannica.com/art/Neoclassicism

Lee, Hye Won Cecilia. 2019. Interview | Terry Riley: "I Would Not Have Written ‘In C’ If I Never Had Played Jazz“. Museland Media Inc. Retrieved 22 May, 2021 from https://www.ludwig-van.com/toronto/2019/01/08/interview-terry-riley-i-would-not-have-written-in-c-if-i-never-had-played-jazz/

Nonesuch Records. (11 May, 2015). Kronos Quartet - G Song (Terry Riley) [Video]. Retrieved 22 May, 2021 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qg6bctbrpiU

Riley, Terry. 1980. G Song. Associated Music Publishers Inc.

Schwarz, Robert. 1990. Music; A New Look t A Major Minimalist. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 22 May, 2021 from https://www.nytimes.com/1990/05/06/arts/music-a-new-look-at-a-major-minimalist.html?sec=&spon=&pagewanted=2

Tsioulcas, Anastasia. 2015. 'The Most Beautiful Offerings': Terry Riley At 80. National Public Radio. Retrieved 22 May, 2021 from https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2015/06/19/415761487/the-most-beautiful-offerings-terry-riley-at-80

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