Having lived in a country that experienced rapid technological change and musical innovation, Ross Lee Finney allowed his music to reflect multiple influences as it passed through a variation of stages. Regardless of the genre his creations fell into, success and support were consistently present in his development. The most notable of his achievements include two honorary degrees, a Connecticut Valley Prize, two Guggenheim Fellowships (1937 and 1947), a Pulitzer Fellowship (1937), the Brandeis Medal (1968), an appointment to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1962), and many commissions.
Even though Finney's early involvement in music was through playing jazz guitar and piano, he is recognized mainly as a composer of chamber, instrumental, stage, orchestral, and choral works. He achieved success after completing studies at the University of Minnesota, Carleton College (where his brother, Theodore M. Finney, was a staff member between 1925 - 1932), Harvard University, and in Vienna. Toward the latter end of his studies (1929 - 1935), R.L. Finney simultaneously served as a faculty member at Smith College, where he stayed until 1948. Afterward he composed more frequently, although still teaching. He taught William Albright, Roger Reynolds, and other fine students at the University of Michigan's School of Music.
After having explored jazz, American folk, and world styles earlier in his career, he developed a late interest in structure and experimented extensively with serialism. Finney continued to compose until shortly before his death in 1997; a sample of his kaleidoscope of works include John Brown for chorus (1929), Chromatic Fantasy for cello (1957), Computer Marriage for stage (1986), Earthwise for chorus and orchestra (1978), and several sonatas for the piano. His works from 1950 onward show his fascination with time, space, and music's internal, intellectual structures. His concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Instruments (1974) was recorded under the New World label in 1976 and features F.L. Hemke and the Northwestern University Symphonic Wind Ensemble.