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Ragtime, also spelled rag-time or rag time, [2] is a musical style that had its peak from the 1890s to 1910s. [1] Its cardinal trait is its syncopated or "ragged" rhythm. [1] Ragtime was popularized during the early 20th century by composers such as Scott Joplin, James Scott and Joseph Lamb. Ragtime pieces (often called "rags") are typically composed for and performed on piano, though the genre has been adapted for a variety of instruments and styles.


Ragtime music originated within African-American communities in the late 19th century and became a distinctly American form of popular music. It is closely related to marches. Ragtime pieces usually contain several distinct themes, often arranged in patterns of repeats and reprises. Scott Joplin, known as the "King of Ragtime", gained fame through compositions like "Maple Leaf Rag" and "The Entertainer". Ragtime influenced early jazz, [3] Harlem stride piano, Piedmont blues, and European classical composers such as Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, and Igor Stravinsky. Despite being overshadowed by jazz in the 1920s, ragtime has experienced several revivals, notably in the 1950s and 1970s (the latter renaissance due in large part to the use of "The Entertainer" in the film The Sting ). The music was distributed primarily through sheet music and piano rolls, with some compositions adapted for other instruments and ensembles.


Scott Joplin achieved fame for his ragtime compositions and was dubbed the "King of Ragtime" by contemporaries. Scott Joplin 19072.jpg
Scott Joplin achieved fame for his ragtime compositions and was dubbed the "King of Ragtime" by contemporaries.


Ragtime music was developed long before it was printed into sheet music. It had its origins in Kentucky, Missouri and Texas.

The first ragtime composition to be published was "La Pas Ma La" in 1895. It was written by minstrel comedian Ernest Hogan. Kentucky native Ben Harney composed the song "You've Been a Good Old Wagon But You Done Broke Down" the following year in 1896. The composition was a hit and helped popularize the genre to the mainstream. [4] [5] Another early ragtime pioneer was comedian and songwriter Irving Jones. [6] [7]

Ragtime was also a modification of the march style popularized by John Philip Sousa. Jazz critic Rudi Blesh thought its polyrhythm may be coming from African music, although no historian or musicologist has made any connection with any music from Africa. [8] Ragtime composer Scott Joplin (ca. 1868–1917) from Texas, became famous through the publication of the "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899) and a string of ragtime hits such as "The Entertainer" (1902), although he was later forgotten by all but a small, dedicated community of ragtime aficionados until the major ragtime revival in the early 1970s. [9] [10] For at least 12 years after its publication, "Maple Leaf Rag" heavily influenced subsequent ragtime composers with its melody lines, chord progressions or metric patterns. [11]

In a 1913 interview published in the black newspaper New York Age , Scott Joplin asserted that there had been "ragtime music in America ever since the Negro race has been here, but the white people took no notice of it until about twenty years ago [in the 1890s]." [12]

The heyday of ragtime

Ragtime quickly established itself as a distinctly American form of popular music. Ragtime became the first African-American music to have an impact on mainstream popular culture. Piano "professors" such as Jelly Roll Morton played ragtime in the "sporting houses" (bordellos) of New Orleans. Polite society embraced ragtime as disseminated by brass bands and "society" dance bands. Bands led by W. C. Handy and James R. Europe were among the first to crash the color bar in American music. The new rhythms of ragtime changed the world of dance bands and led to new dance steps, popularized by the show-dancers Vernon and Irene Castle during the 1910s. The growth of dance orchestras in popular entertainment was an outgrowth of ragtime and continued into the 1920s.

Ragtime also made its way to Europe. Shipboard orchestras on transatlantic lines included ragtime music in their repertoire. In 1912 the first public concerts of ragtime were performed in the United Kingdom by the American Ragtime Octette (ARO) at the Hippodrome, London; a group organized by ragtime composer and pianist Lewis F. Muir who toured Europe. [13] [14] Immensely popular with British audiences, the ARO popularized several of Muir's rags (such as "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" and "Hitchy-Koo") which were credited by historian Ian Whitcomb as the first American popular songs to influence British culture and music. [15] The ARO recorded some of Muir's rags with the British record label The Winner Records in 1912; the first ragtime recordings made in Europe. [16] James R. Europe's 369th Regiment band generated great enthusiasm during its 1918 tour of France. [17]

Ragtime was an influence on early jazz; the influence of Jelly Roll Morton continued in the Harlem stride piano style of players such as James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. Ragtime was also a major influence on Piedmont blues. Dance orchestras started evolving away from ragtime towards the big band sounds that predominated in the 1920s and 1930s when they adopted smoother rhythmic styles.


There have been numerous revivals since newer styles supplanted ragtime in the 1920s. First in the early 1940s, many jazz bands began to include ragtime in their repertoire and put out ragtime recordings on 78 rpm records. A more significant revival occurred in the 1950s as a wider variety of ragtime genres of the past were made available on records, and new rags were composed, published, and recorded.

In the 1960s, two major factors brought about a greater public recognition of ragtime. The first was the publication of the book, They All Played Ragtime , in 1960, by Harriet Janis and Rudi Blesh. Some historians refer to this book as "The Ragtime Bible." Regardless, it was the first comprehensive and serious attempt to document the first ragtime era, and its three most important composers, Joplin, Scott, and Lamb. The second major factor was the rise to prominence of Max Morath. Morath created two television series for National Educational Television (now PBS) in 1960 and 1962: The Ragtime Era, and The Turn of the Century. Morath turned the latter into a one-man-show in 1969, and toured the U.S. with it for five years. Morath subsequently created different one-man-shows which also toured the U.S., that also educated and entertained audiences about ragtime. [18] New ragtime composers soon followed, including Morath, Donald Ashwander, Trebor Jay Tichenor, John Arpin, William Bolcom, William Albright.

In 1971, Joshua Rifkin released a compilation of Joplin's work which was nominated for a Grammy Award. [19]

In 1973, The New England Ragtime Ensemble (then a student group called The New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble) recorded The Red Back Book , a compilation of some of Joplin's rags in period orchestrations edited by conservatory president Gunther Schuller. It won a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance of the year and was named Top Classical Album of 1974 by Billboard magazine. The film The Sting (1973) brought ragtime to a wide audience with its soundtrack of Joplin tunes. The film's rendering of "The Entertainer", adapted and orchestrated by Marvin Hamlisch, was a Top 5 hit in 1975.

Ragtime – with Joplin's work at the forefront – has been cited as an American equivalent of the minuets of Mozart, the mazurkas of Chopin, or the waltzes of Brahms. [20] Ragtime also influenced classical composers including Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, and Igor Stravinsky. [21] [22]

Historical context

Cover for "La Pas Ma La" sheet music (1895). Words and Music by Ernest Hogan Las ma la.jpg
Cover for "La Pas Ma La" sheet music (1895). Words and Music by Ernest Hogan
Second edition cover of Maple Leaf Rag, one of the most famous rags Maple Leaf Rag.PNG
Second edition cover of Maple Leaf Rag, one of the most famous rags

Musical form

The first page of "The Easy Winners" by Scott Joplin shows ragtime rhythms and syncopated melodies. Easy Winners 2.jpg
The first page of "The Easy Winners" by Scott Joplin shows ragtime rhythms and syncopated melodies.

The rag was a modification of the march made popular by John Philip Sousa, with additional polyrhythms coming from African music. [8] It was usually written in 2
or 4
time with a predominant left-hand pattern of bass notes on strong beats (beats 1 and 3) and chords on weak beats (beat 2 and 4) accompanying a syncopated melody in the right hand. According to some sources the name "ragtime" may come from the "ragged or syncopated rhythm" of the right hand. [1] A rag written in 3
time is a "ragtime waltz".

Ragtime is not a meter in the same way that marches are in duple meter and waltzes are in triple meter; it is rather a musical style that uses an effect that can be applied to any meter. The defining characteristic of ragtime music is a specific type of syncopation in which melodic accents occur between metrical beats. This results in a melody that seems to be avoiding some metrical beats of the accompaniment by emphasizing notes that either anticipate or follow the beat ("a rhythmic base of metric affirmation, and a melody of metric denial" [33] ). The ultimate (and intended) effect on the listener is actually to accentuate the beat, thereby inducing the listener to move to the music. Scott Joplin, the composer/pianist known as the "King of Ragtime", called the effect "weird and intoxicating." He also used the term "swing" in describing how to play ragtime music: "Play slowly until you catch the swing...". [34]

The name swing later came to be applied to an early style of jazz that developed from ragtime. Converting a non-ragtime piece of music into ragtime by changing the time values of melody notes is known as "ragging" the piece. Original ragtime pieces usually contain several distinct themes, four being the most common number. These themes were typically 16 bars, each theme divided into periods of four four-bar phrases and arranged in patterns of repeats and reprises. Typical patterns were AABBACCC′, AABBCCDD and AABBCCA, with the first two strains in the tonic key and the following strains in the subdominant. Sometimes rags would include introductions of four bars or bridges, between themes, of anywhere between four and 24 bars. [1]

In a note on the sheet music for the song "Leola" Joplin wrote, "Notice! Don't play this piece fast. It is never right to play 'ragtime' fast." [35] E. L. Doctorow used the quotation as the epigraph to his novel Ragtime .

Sheet music cover for "Spaghetti Rag" (1910) by Lyons and Yosco Spaghetti Rag.jpg
Sheet music cover for "Spaghetti Rag" (1910) by Lyons and Yosco

American ragtime composers

Influence on European composers

James Scott's 1904 "On the Pike", which refers to the midway of the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904 On the Pike 1.jpg
James Scott's 1904 "On the Pike", which refers to the midway of the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904

European Classical composers were influenced by the form. The first contact with ragtime was probably at the Paris Exposition in 1900, one of the stages of the European tour of John Philip Sousa. The first notable classical composer to take a serious interest in ragtime was Antonín Dvořák. [36] French composer Claude Debussy emulated ragtime in three pieces for piano. The best-known remains the Golliwog's Cake Walk (from the 1908 Piano Suite Children's Corner ). He later returned to the style with two preludes for piano: Minstrels, (1910) and General Lavine-excentric (from his 1913 Préludes), [21] which was inspired by a Médrano circus clown.

Erik Satie, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, and the other members of The Group of Six in Paris never made any secret of their sympathy for ragtime, which is sometimes evident in their works. Consider, in particular, the ballet of Satie, Parade (Ragtime du Paquebot), (1917) and La Mort de Monsieur Mouche, an overture for piano for a drama in three acts, composed in the early 1900s in memory of his friend J.P. Contamine de Latour. In 1902 the American cakewalk was very popular in Paris and Satie two years later wrote two rags, La Diva de l'empire and Piccadilly. Despite the two Anglo-Saxon settings, the tracks appear American-inspired. La Diva de l'empire, a march for piano soloist, was written for Paulette Darty and initially bore the title Stand-Walk Marche; it was later subtitled Intermezzo Americain when Rouarts-Lerolle reprinted it in 1919. Piccadilly, another march, was initially titled The Transatlantique; it presented a stereotypical wealthy American heir sailing on an ocean liner on the New York–Europe route, going to trade his fortune for an aristocratic title in Europe. [37] There is a similar influence in Milhaud's ballets Le boeuf sur le toite and Creation du Monde, which he wrote after a visit to Harlem during his trip in 1922. Even the Swiss composer Honegger wrote works in which the influence of African American music is pretty obvious. Examples include Pacific 231, Prélude et Blues and especially the Concertino for piano and orchestra.

Igor Stravinsky wrote a solo piano work called Piano-Rag-Music in 1919 and also included a rag in his theater piece L'Histoire du soldat (1918). [38]


In the early 1940s, many jazz bands began to include ragtime in their repertoire, and as early as 1936 78 rpm records of Joplin's compositions were produced. [39] Old numbers written for piano were rescored for jazz instruments by jazz musicians, which gave the old style a new sound. The most famous recording of this period is Pee Wee Hunt's version of Euday L. Bowman's "Twelfth Street Rag."

The first edition cover of "Pine Apple Rag", composed and released by Scott Joplin in 1908. PineAppleRagCover08.jpg
The first edition cover of "Pine Apple Rag", composed and released by Scott Joplin in 1908.

A more significant revival occurred in the 1950s. A wider variety of ragtime styles of the past were made available on records, and new rags were composed, published, and recorded. Much of the ragtime recorded in this period is presented in a light-hearted novelty style, looked to with nostalgia as the product of a supposedly more innocent time. A number of popular recordings featured "prepared pianos", playing rags on pianos with tacks on the hammers and the instrument deliberately somewhat out of tune, supposedly to simulate the sound of a piano in an old honky tonk.

Four events brought forward a different kind of ragtime revival in the 1970s. First, pianist Joshua Rifkin released a compilation of Scott Joplin's work, Scott Joplin: Piano Rags , on Nonesuch Records, which was nominated in 1971 for a Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Soloist or Soloists (without orchestra) category. [19] This recording reintroduced Joplin's music to the public in the manner the composer had intended, not as a nostalgic stereotype but as serious, respectable music. Second, the New York Public Library released a two-volume set of The Collected Works of Scott Joplin which renewed interest in Joplin among musicians and prompted new stagings of Joplin's opera Treemonisha . [31] [40] Next came the release and Grammy Award for The New England Ragtime Ensemble's recording of The Red Back Book, Joplin tunes edited by Gunther Schuller. Finally, with the release of the film The Sting in 1973, which had a Marvin Hamlisch soundtrack of Joplin rags, ragtime was brought to a wide audience. Hamlisch's rendering of Joplin's 1902 rag "The Entertainer" won an Academy Award, [41] and was an American Top 40 hit in 1974, reaching No. 3 on May 18. [42] Ragtime news and reviews publications during this period included The Ragtime Review (1962–1966), The Rag Times (bimonthly/sporadic, fl. 1962–2003), and The Mississippi Rag (monthly, 1973–2009). [43] [44]

In 1980, an adaption of E. L. Doctorow's historical novel Ragtime was released on screen. Randy Newman composed its music score, which was all original. In 1998, a stage version of Ragtime was produced on Broadway. With music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the show featured several rags as well as songs in other musical styles.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Scott Joplin was an American composer and pianist. Dubbed the "King of Ragtime", he composed more than 40 ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas. One of his first and most popular pieces, the "Maple Leaf Rag", became the genre's first and most influential hit, later being recognized as the quintessential rag. Joplin considered ragtime to be a form of classical music meant to be played in concert halls and largely disdained the performance of ragtime as honky tonk music most common in saloons.

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Further reading