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, with additional polyrhythms from African music. 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.


Ragtime music was developed long before it was printed into sheet music. It has origins within African-American communities in cities such as St. Louis.[4][5]

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.[6][7]

Ragtime was also a modification of the march style popularized by John Philip Sousa, with additional polyrhythms coming from African music.[8] 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.[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 movie 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