What is ragtime?

Ragtime began as a genre of popular song and, much like later jazz music, it is a hybrid of elements from white European music and black American music.


It took the solidly tonal march idiom (made famous by composer John Philip Sousa) and enlivened it with modern syncopated rhythms.

Piano rags by the likes of Scott Joplin also drew on the salon-music tradition of light classical music, a precursor being the work of US composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-69), whose piano music used elements from sources as diverse as Liszt and slave dances.

What is the structure of ragtime music?

Piano rags were invariably cast in the sectionalised structure of the popular march, with each section repeated. Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag inserted a repeat of the first section mid-way through the piece to give the structure AABBACCDD, which he also used in Pineapple Rag. Like Sousa’s marches, the final one or two sections often moved to a new key.

What are the rhythms and textures of ragtime?

Above ‘oom-pah’ chord patterns in the pianist’s left hand (emulating the bass drum and cymbal beats of a marching band), the right hand plays a syncopated melody. This style was popular in old minstrel shows and originated in slave songs with banjo accompaniment. That influence is heard in the right hand’s arpeggiated chords.

What is the harmonic language of ragtime?

Ragtime’s harmonic language was about 50 years out of date in terms of the classical music of its day. But this, together with its novel rhythmic style, helped it to become very popular.

Who were the biggest ragtime stars?

Scott Joplin was dubbed the ‘King of Ragtime’ and is probably the most familiar name when it comes to ragtime. Jazz stars like Jelly Roll Morton, Eubie Blake, Fats Waller and even Broadway and Hollywood’s Irving Berlin would write and record some of the most popular ragtime pieces. The title song from Berlin’s musical Alexander’s Ragtime Band is one of the composer’s most familiar, and oft-recorded, works.

What are the most famous pieces of ragtime music?

Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, Pineapple Rag and Sunflower Slow Drag, not to mention The Entertainer are some of the most familiar ragtime pieces. He even wrote what some call a ‘ragtime opera’, Tremonisha. Eubie Blake’s Charleston Rag was an early work which gained popularity, as were James Scott’s Frog Legs Rag and Bohemia Rag.

Are there any recommended recordings of ragtime?

The Very Best of Ragtime

Scott Joplin: Piano Rags – Alexander Peskanov (piano)


Jelly Roll Morton: Doctor Jazz


Michael BeekReviews Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.