Early life and education
Amos is the third child of Mary Ellen (Copeland) and Edison McKinley Amos. She was born at the Old Catawba Hospital in Newton, North Carolina during a trip from their Georgetown home in Washington, D.C. Amos has said that her maternal grandparents each had an Eastern Cherokee grandparent of their own. Of particular importance to her as a child was her maternal grandfather, Calvin Clinton Copeland, who was a great source of inspiration and guidance, offering a more pantheistic spiritual alternative to her father and paternal grandmother's traditional Christianity.
When she was two years old, her family moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where her father had transplanted his Methodist ministry from its original base in Washington, D.C. Her older brother and sister took piano lessons, but Amos didn't need them. From the time she could reach the piano, she taught herself to play: when she was two, she could reproduce pieces of music she had only heard once, and, by the age of three, she was composing her own songs. She has described seeing music as structures of light since early childhood, an experience consistent with chromesthesia:
The song appears as light filament once I've cracked it. As long as I've been doing this, which is more than thirty-five years, I've never seen the same light creature in my life. Obviously similar chord progressions follow similar light patterns, but try to imagine the best kaleidoscope ever—after the initial excitement, you start to focus on each element's stunning original detail. For instance, the sound of the words with the sound of the chord progression combined with the rhythm manifests itself in a unique expression of the architecture of color-and-light. ... I started visiting this world when I was three, listening to a piece by Béla Bartók; I visited a configuration that day that wasn't on this earth. ... It was euphoric.
At five, she became the youngest student ever admitted to the preparatory division of the Peabody Conservatory of Music. She studied classical piano at Peabody from 1968 to 1974. In 1974, when she was eleven, her scholarship was discontinued, and she was asked to leave. Amos has asserted that she lost the scholarship because of her interest in rock and popular music, coupled with her dislike for reading from sheet music.
In 1972, the Amos family moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, where her father became pastor of the Good Shepherd United Methodist church. At thirteen, Amos began playing at gay bars and piano bars, chaperoned by her father.
Amos won a county teen talent contest in 1977, singing a song called "More Than Just a Friend". As a senior at Richard Montgomery High School, she co-wrote "Baltimore" with her brother Mike Amos for a competition involving the Baltimore Orioles. The song won the contest and became her first single, released as a 7" single pressed locally for family and friends in 1980 with another Amos-penned composition as a B-side, "Walking With You". Before this, she had performed under her middle name, Ellen, but permanently adopted Tori after a friend's boyfriend told her she looked like a Torrey pine, a tree native to the West Coast.