Born and raised in New England, Adams learned the clarinet from his father and played in marching bands and community orchestras during his formative years. He began composing at age ten and heard his first orchestral pieces performed while still a teenager. The intellectual and artistic traditions of New England, including his studies at Harvard University and attendance at Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, helped shape him as an artist and thinker.
After earning two degrees from Harvard, he moved to Northern California in 1971 and has since lived in the San Francisco Bay area. Adams taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for ten years before becoming composer-in-residence of the San Francisco Symphony (1982-85), and creator of the orchestra's highly successful and controversial 'New and Unusual Music' series. Several of Adams's landmark orchestral works were written for and premiered by the San Francisco Symphony, including Harmonium (1980-81), Grand Pianola Music (1982), Harmonielehre (1984-85), and El Dorado (1991).