Music History

The History of Ragtime Music & Fun Ragtime Piano Songs to Learn

By Jesse Preis
What is ragtime? Learn fun ragtime piano music & the history of ragtime.

What is ragtime music? Learn about the history of ragtime piano music here

Are you interested in learning some fun and upbeat piano music? Ragtime is the perfect place to look for a new impressive piece of music to play! In this article, we will explain what ragtime is, what makes ragtime unique and important, and provide some fun ragtime piano examples.  We also will give some recommendations and tips to help you on your journey in learning fun ragtime piano music. 

What is ragtime music?

Ragtime is an incredibly important American musical-style that was popular during the late 1890s up until 1920, which means you’ve most likely heard ragtime at some point in time. If you are familiar with the “Maple Leaf Rag” or “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin, you have heard of ragtime! 

Ragtime has also influenced composers abroad. A very famous example is “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk” from French composer Claude Debussy’s piano suite Children’s Corner, published in 1908. The cakewalk was a “prize” dance that originated in the southern United States in the mid-1800s, in which the winner would win a cake! 

In addition to its global influence on music, ragtime music was the origin for a very popular jazz-style known as stride piano. Ragtime pianists would play syncopated, march-like pieces. These pianists often would improvise and cover larger spans of the keyboard than classical ragtime pianists. Pianists Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and James P. Johnson are well-known for their prominence within the stride style. For an example, check out Art Tatum’s version of “The Tiger Rag” (1933)! 

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Who is the best-known composer of ragtime music?

Scott Joplin was an African-American composer and pianist whose prominence in the genre gave him the title the “King of Ragtime”. To learn more about Scott Joplin, you can visit our blog post that discusses his life by clicking here

Is ragtime music considered jazz?

This is a question that many learners of ragtime have asked. It does share a lot of characteristics with jazz, such as swung and syncopated rhythms and adventurous chords, but it is really a genre on its own. The ragtime genre helped lay the foundations for the creation of the jazz genre. Scott Joplin himself considered ragtime to be a serious form of classical music, like the sonata, and he really disliked those who considered it only to be a popular genre. 

What is the most prominent musical element of ragtime? What are some other characteristics of ragtime music?

There are several different types of ragtime and ragtime-inspired styles. The early style is known as classical ragtime, which developed within African-American communities, particularly around St. Louis, Missouri. Scott Joplin, James Scott, and Joseph Lamb are three composers who define the classical ragtime style. This style is normally written with a 2/4 time signature, begins with a four-measure introduction, is march-like, and incorporates syncopated rhythms. One very important characteristic of ragtime is how these syncopated rhythms would often be accented in-between beats, but the beats themselves would still be accented, driving people to dance to the rhythm. Inspired by African traditional music, this technique makes it sound as if two unrelated rhythms are being played at the same time, which is called polyrhythm.

Some other characteristics of ragtime music include passages that must be played in octaves and the swung-style in which they’re performed. Originally, Scott Joplin described playing ragtime this way: “Play slowly until you catch the swing…”. The term Swing eventually would become known as a popular-style of jazz music that developed from ragtime influence. Classical ragtime pieces usually contain around four different themes, but sometimes that number varies. These themes may each be 16 measures long, broken into four four measure phrases. Again, this may change depending on the piece.

How to learn ragtime piano

The secret to learning ragtime piano is – as with all things, practice! We recommend mastering scales, inversion, octaves, and key signatures in order to play this music. A sense of rhythm and accuracy is crucial too!

First, start with listening to ragtime recordings. As with any style of music that we want to learn, it’s important to listen to recordings of people who know the style well! Thanks to the player pianos of his day, there are recordings of Scott Joplin himself playing some of his rags! Other great ragtime pianists to listen to are Jelly Roll Morton and Max Morath

Secondly, find a teacher to help you master the technical skills needed to play ragtime piano. When you’re ready, make sure to practice the hands separately before putting your hands together, since the rhythms of ragtime music can be tricky at times.

If you’re interested in taking online piano lessons, sign up for a Hoffman Academy Premium membership for lessons, practice plans, games, and more!

Who are some other ragtime composers?

Some other famous ragtime composers that you might be interested in playing are James Scott and Joseph Lamb. Along with Scott Joplin, these composers were known as the “Big Three” of classical ragtime. One of Joseph Lamb’s most famous compositions was the “Patricia Rag”, published in 1916. Some famous rags by James Scott are the “Frog Legs Rag” (1906) and “Ophelia Rag” (1910). 

An example of a modern piano rag is “The Graceful Ghost Rag” from William Bolcom’s set of Three Ghost Rags, published in the early 1970s. Another modern popular example of the rag is rock legend Billy Joel’s fun piano solo “Root Beer Rag”. 

Other composers of rags or ragtime-inspired pieces that you may be interested in are Donald Ashwander (“The Waterloo Rag”), Percy Grainger (“In Dahomey”), and even George Gershwin (“Rialto Ripples Rag”)!

Sheet music recommendations for fun ragtime piano music

If you are interested in playing some ragtime pieces, such as the “Maple Leaf Rag” or “The Entertainer”, just go to Sheet Music Direct and search for it in the search bar. Many other ragtime music pieces are easy to find there as well, including simplified versions! 

What is ragtime?  Now that you’ve explored the genre of ragtime music, learned a little about what makes ragtime piano unique and important, and have listened to some fun and upbeat examples of ragtime piano music, it’s time to get out there: practice and make some music! Whether this be ragtime, classical, jazz, or pop music, we at Hoffman Academy wish you the best as you start/continue your piano learning journey! Just learn and have fun!

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