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Considered the First Completely American Music

Genre Spotlight...."Ragtime"

Cultural Origins.... Late 19th-century Southern United States

Stylistic Origins.... Folk, Marches, Cakewalk, Classical

Sub-Genres & International Influence..... Ragtime, Vintage Jazz, Tin Pan Alley, Boogie Woogie, Stride, Swing, Big Band, New Orleans Jazz, New Orleans Ragtime Band, Vintage Swing, British Dance Band, Dixieland, Gypsy Jazz, Ophelia Ragtime Orchestra, Manhattan Ragtime Orchestra, The New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, Doc Houlind & His Copenhagen Ragtime Band, George Lewis & His Ragtime Band, The Ragtimers, Ragtime Jazz Band

Hall of Fame..... International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky - International Bluegrass Music Association - Nashville, Tennessee

Ragtime – also spelled rag-time or rag time – Considered the first completely American music, ragtime was popular towards the end of the 19th century and into the first two decades of the 20th century, roughly 1893 to 1917. It is the style of music that preceded jazz. Its cardinal trait is its syncopated, or "ragged", rhythm. The genre has its origins in African-American communities years before being published as popular sheet music for piano. Ernest Hogan (1865–1909) was a pioneer of ragtime music and was the first to compose ragtime into sheet music. The composition was called "LA Pas Ma LA" and it was released in 1895. Hogan has also been credited for coining the term ragtime. The term is actually derived from his hometown "Shake Rag" in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Ben Harney, who is also a Kentucky native has often been credited for introducing the music to the mainstream public. His first ragtime composition "You've been a good old wagon but you done broke" helped popularize the musical genre. The composition was published in 1895 but released in 1896. Ragtime was also a modification of the march made popular by John Philip Sousa, with additional polyrhythms coming from African music. The ragtime composer Scott Joplin (ca. 1868–1917) 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. For at least 12 years after its publication, "Maple Leaf Rag" heavily influenced subsequent ragtime composers with its melody lines, harmonic progressions or metric patterns.

Ragtime fell out of favor as jazz claimed the publics imagination after 1917, but there have been numerous revivals since the music has been re-discovered. 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 styles of the past were made available on records, and new rags were composed, published, and recorded. In 1971 Joshua Rifkin brought out a compilation of Joplin's work which was nominated for a Grammy Award. 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. This also won a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance of the year and was named Billboard's Top Classical Album of 1974. Subsequently, the motion picture 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 1974.

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. Ragtime also influenced classical composers including Erik Satie, Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky.


Originated in African American Music

Ragtime originated in the late 19th century and descended from the jigs and march music played by African American bands, referred to as "jig piano" or "piano thumping". By the start of the 20th century, it became widely popular throughout North America and was listened and danced to, performed, and written by people of many different subcultures. A distinctly American musical style, ragtime may be considered a synthesis of African syncopation and European classical music, especially the marches made popular by John Philip Sousa.

Some early piano rags are entitled marches, and "jig" and "rag" were used interchangeably in the mid-1890s. Ragtime was also preceded by its close relative the cakewalk. In 1895, black entertainer Ernest Hogan composed two of the earliest sheet music rags, one of which ("All Coons Look Alike to Me") eventually sold a million copies. The other composition was called La Pas Ma La which was also a hit, As fellow black musician Tom Fletcher said, Hogan was the "first to put on paper the kind of rhythm that was being played by non-reading musicians."While the song's success helped introduce the country to ragtime rhythms, its use of racial slurs created a number of derogatory imitation tunes, known as "coon songs" because of their use of racist and stereotypical images of blacks. In Hogan's later years he admitted shame and a sense of "race betrayal" for the song while also expressing pride in helping bring ragtime to a larger audience.

The emergence of mature ragtime is usually dated to 1897, the year in which several important early rags were published. In 1899, Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" was published and became a great hit and demonstrated more depth and sophistication than earlier ragtime. Ragtime was one of the main influences on the early development of jazz (along with the blues). Some artists, such as Jelly Roll Morton, were present and performed both ragtime and jazz styles during the period the two genres overlapped. He also incorporated the Spanish Tinge in his performances, which gave a habanera or tango rhythm to his music. Jazz largely surpassed ragtime in mainstream popularity in the early 1920s, although ragtime compositions continue to be written up to the present, and periodic revivals of popular interest in ragtime occurred in the 1950s and the 1970s.

The heyday of ragtime occurred before sound recording was widely available. Like classical music, and unlike jazz, classical ragtime had and has primarily a written tradition, being distributed in sheet music rather than through recordings or by imitation of live performances. Ragtime music was also distributed via piano rolls for player pianos. A folk ragtime tradition also existed before and during the period of classical ragtime (a designation largely created by Scott Joplin's publisher John Stillwell Stark), manifesting itself mostly through string bands, banjo and mandolin clubs (which experienced a burst of popularity during the early 20th century) and the like.

The Birth of Novelty Piano

A form known as novelty piano (or novelty ragtime) emerged as the traditional rag was fading in popularity. Where traditional ragtime depended on amateur pianists and sheet music sales, the novelty rag took advantage of new advances in piano-roll technology and the phonograph record to permit a more complex, pyrotechnic, performance-oriented style of rag to be heard. Chief among the novelty rag composers is Zez Confrey, whose "Kitten on the Keys" popularized the style in 1921.

Ragtime also served as the roots for stride piano, a more improvisational piano style popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Elements of ragtime found their way into much of the American popular music of the early 20th century. It also played a central role in the development of the musical style later referred to as Piedmont blues; indeed, much of the music played by such artists of the genre as Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller, Elizabeth Cotten, and Etta Baker could be referred to as "ragtime guitar."

Although most ragtime was composed for piano, transcriptions for other instruments and ensembles are common, notably including Gunther Schuller's arrangements of Joplin's rags. Ragtime guitar continued to be popular into the 1930s, usually in the form of songs accompanied by skilled guitar work. Numerous records emanated from several labels, performed by Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Lemon Jefferson, and others. Occasionally ragtime was scored for ensembles (particularly dance bands and brass bands) similar to those of James Reese Europe, or as songs like those written by Irving Berlin. Joplin had long-standing ambitions of synthesizing the worlds of ragtime and opera, to which end the opera Treemonisha was written. However its first performance, poorly staged with Joplin accompanying on the piano, was "disastrous" and it was never to be fully performed again in Joplin's lifetime. In fact the score was lost for decades, then rediscovered in 1970, and a fully orchestrated and staged performance took place in 1972. An earlier opera by Joplin, A Guest of Honor, has been lost.

Musical Form

The rag was a modification of the march made popular by John Philip Sousa, with additional polyrhythms coming from African music. It was usually written in 2/4 or 4/4 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. A rag written in 3/4 time is a "ragtime waltz."

Ragtime is not a "time" (meter) in the same sense that march time is 2/4 meter and waltz time is 3/4 meter; it is rather a musical genre 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"). 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...". The name swing later came to be applied to an early genre 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′, AABBACCDD and AABBCCA, with the first two strains in the tonic key and the following strains in the sub-dominant. Sometimes rags would include introductions of four bars or bridges, between themes, of anywhere between four and 24 bars.

Styles of Ragtime

Zez Confrey's "Dizzy Fingers," a 1923 novelty piano piece. Ragtime pieces came in a number of different styles during the years of its popularity and appeared under a number of different descriptive names. It is related to several earlier styles of music, has close ties with later styles of music, and was associated with a few musical "fads" of the period such as the foxtrot. Many of the terms associated with ragtime have inexact definitions, and are defined differently by different experts; the definitions are muddled further by the fact that publishers often labeled pieces for the fad of the moment rather than the true style of the composition. There is even disagreement about the term "ragtime" itself; experts such as David Jasen and Trebor Tichenor choose to exclude ragtime songs from the definition but include novelty piano and stride piano (a modern perspective), while Edward A. Berlin includes ragtime songs and excludes the later styles (which is closer to how ragtime was viewed originally). Many ragtime pianists, Eubie Blake and Mark Birnbaum among them, include the songs and the later styles as ragtime. The terms below should not be considered exact, but merely an attempt to pin down the general meaning of the concept.

Cakewalk - A Pre-Ragtime dance form popular until about 1904. The music is intended to be representative of an African-American dance contest in which the prize is a cake. Many early rags are cakewalks.

Characteristic march - A Pre-Ragtime dance form popular until about 1908. A march incorporating idiomatic touches (such as syncopation) supposedly characteristic of the race of their subject, which is usually African-Americans. Many early rags are characteristic marches.

Two-step - A Pre-Ragtime dance form popular until about 1911. A large number of rags are two-steps.

Slow drag - Another dance form associated with early ragtime. A modest number of rags are slow drags.

Coon song - A Pre-Ragtime vocal form popular until about 1901. A song with crude, racist lyrics often sung by white performers in Blackwood. Gradually died out in favor of the ragtime song. Strongly associated with ragtime in its day, it is one of the things that gave ragtime a bad name.

Ragtime song - The vocal form of ragtime, more generic in theme than the coon song. Though this was the form of music most commonly considered "ragtime" in its day, many people today prefer to put it in the "popular music" category. Irving Berlin was the most commercially successful composer of ragtime songs, and his "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911) was the single most widely performed and recorded piece of this sort, even though it contains virtually no ragtime syncopation. Gene Greene was a famous singer in this style.

Folk ragtime - A name often used to describe ragtime that originated from small towns or assembled from folk strains, or at least sounded as if they did. Folk rags often have unusual chromatic features typical of composers with non-standard training.

Classic rag - A name used to describe the Missouri-style ragtime popularized by Scott Joplin, James Scott, and others.

Fox-trot - A dance fad that began in 1913. Fox-trots contain a dotted-note rhythm different from that of ragtime, but which nonetheless was incorporated into many late rags.

Novelty piano - A piano composition emphasizing speed and complexity which emerged after World War I. It is almost exclusively the domain of white composers.

Stride piano - A style of piano which emerged after World War I, developed by and dominated by black East coast pianists (James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Willie 'The Lion' Smith). Together with novelty piano, it may be considered a successor to ragtime, but is not considered by all to be "genuine" ragtime. Johnson composed the song that is arguably most associated with the Roaring Twenties, "Charleston." A recording of Johnson playing the song appears on the compact disc, James P. Johnson: Harlem Stride Piano (Jazz Archives No. 111, EPM, Paris, 1997). Johnson's recorded version has a ragtime flavor.

Early Progenitors

In a very real sense, Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) can be said to be the first ancestor of American art music. His best works reveal a masterful fusion of musical styles and in so doing reflect the diversity of American culture. Perhaps his greatest contribution to American music was incorporating the syncopated rhythmic elements of Caribbean and Latin folk music into his compositions. As Gottschalk's biographer, Frederick Starr, points out, these rhythmic elements "anticipate ragtime and jazz by a half century." It could be said that jazz, especially in terms of its rhythmic characteristics, is a progeny of Gottschalk's Latin-influenced compositions.

By basing his music on American folk idioms and styles, Louis Moreau Gottschalk can be considered a "nationalist" composer in much the same way that Edvard Grieg or Bedrich Smetana are considered nationalist composers in their respective countries.

Rather than merely quoting folk music, the melodic, rhythmic and harmonic properties of Gottschalk's music are infused with the musical characteristics of folk tradition. His colorful score, A Night in the Tropics, incorporates South American rhythmic, harmonic and melodic idioms within traditional European orchestration and thus is highly evocative of the Latin spirit, especially in the syncopated rhythmic aspects which are typical of Latin dance music.

James Reese Europe (1881-1991) was another important precursor to the formulation of Ragtime and Jazz. His Harlem Hellfighters Band and Clef Club Orchestra (an ensemble comprised entirely of Black musicians) played highly syncopated arrangements which presaged the Jazz era of the 1930s and 1940s.

By far the most famous ragtime composer was Scott Joplin. Joseph Lamb and James Scott are, together, acknowledged as the three most sophisticated ragtime composers. Other leading ragtime composers include Jelly Roll Morton, Eubie Blake, Charles L. Johnson, Tom Turpin, May Aufderheide, Mike Bernard, George Botsford, Zez Confrey, Ben Harney, Luckey Roberts, James P. Johnson, Paul Sarebresole, Joe Jordan, Fred S. Stone and Wilbur Sweatman.

Influence on European composers

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 Anton Dvoràk. 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 Preludes), which was inspired by a Médrano circus clown.

James Scott's 1904 "On the Pike", which refers to the midway of the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904 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. There is a similar influence in Milhaud's ballets Le boeuf sur le toite and Creation du Monde, which he wrote after a trip 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.

Maurice Ravel is said to have heard Jimmie Noone and his group perform in Chicago. Despite the imprecise anecdote, Ravel's involvement with jazz is unquestionable, as it influenced many of his important works, for example the fox-trot of L'enfant et les sortilèges, the blues of the Sonata for violin and piano, Concerto in G and the Concerto for the left hand, both composed for piano in 1931.

From the 1960s on, composers from Sweden are producing ragtime, chief among them are Peter Lundberg, Sune "Sumpen" Borg, Peter Andersson, Ragnar Hellspong, Oscar Janner, Oleg Mezjuev, Joakim Stenshäll, Kimo Viklund, and Kjell Waltman.

Ragtime revivals

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. Old numbers written for piano were re-scored 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."

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.

Three events brought forward a different kind of ragtime revival in the 1970s. First, pianist Joshua Rifkin brought out a compilation of Scott Joplin's work, Scott Joplin: Piano Rags, on Nonesuch Records, which was nominated for a Grammy Award in the "Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Soloist(s) without Orchestra" category in 1971. 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. Next came the release and Grammy Award for The New England Ragtime Ensemble's recording of Joplin's Red Back Book. Finally, with the release of the motion picture The Sting in 1973, which had a Marvin Hamlisch soundtrack of Joplin tunes originally edited by Gunther Schuller, ragtime was brought to a wide audience. Hamlisch's rendering of Joplin's 1902 rag "The Entertainer" won an Academy Award, and was an American Top 40 hit in 1974, reaching #3 on 18 May.

Significant ragtime composers of the mid- to late-20th century include Max Morath, William Bolcom, Trebor Tichenor, David Thomas Roberts, and Reginald Robinson.

In 1998, an adaption of E. L. Doctorow's historical novel 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 genres.

Many modern musicians have again begun to find ragtime and incorporate it into their musical repertoires. Such acts include Jay Chou, Curtains for You, Baby Gramps and Bob Milne.

The Impact of Ragtime


Ragtime was a highly rhythmic style of music which incorporated the historical aspects of popular genres from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. It included a lively syncopation which became popular in its own right to create a special melody and rhythm performed on the piano and sometimes the banjo. As a precursor to jazz, ragtime was used as dance music until it became popular and accepted for solo piano pieces. Using the cakewalk (a form of musical promenade), jig (a lively dance) and march (proceeding in measured steps), ragtime combined African-American syncopation and European classical music to create an American musical style. Originally ragtime, like jazz, was condemned because of its sensuality and frivolity; however, ragtime has long since become respectable in American society and musical circles.

Bluegrass Music & Sub-Genres

Click on any of the names below to hear samples:


Vintage Jazz

Tin Pan Alley




Big Band

New Orleans Jazz

New Orleans Ragtime Band

Vintage Swing

British Dance Band


Gypsy Jazz

Ophelia Ragtime Orchestra

Manhattan Ragtime Orchestra

The New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra

Doc Houlind & His Copenhagen Ragtime Band

George Lewis & His Ragtime Band

The Ragtimers

Ragtime Jazz Band