hints on how to play ragtime    


Ragtime was traditionally played on the piano, and sheet music is available for many rags so that classically trained pianists can read and learn them. A good piece to start with is either The Entertainer or Maple Leaf Rag, both by Joplin, because they are typical of the traditional style and present fewer technical challenges.

Ragtime has a different feel from jazz, with a more precise, almost mechanical rhythm. As explained on the History and Details pages, the characteristic rag feel is a syncopated melody in the right hand played over a steady and even alternating bass-tenor-bass-tenor sequence in the left hand. Scott Joplin notated all his rags in with the 2-4 time signature. In this notation there are two crotchet (quarter note) beats in each bar. The pianist's left hand plays alternately a bass note or octave then a chord in the middle of the keyboard, in strict quavers (eighth notes). The bass notes are struck on the first and third quavers of the bar, and the tenor chords on the second and fourth quavers. It is important that these chords contains at least three notes as this helps to fill out the sound and give an emphasis on half-beats 2 and 4, which is an essential feature of the ragtime and jazz styles. Here is a typical example of the left hand part:

Nowadays rags are notated in 4-4 time rather than 2-4, but the sound is the same.

Tempo should be strictly observed, with the left hand chords falling strictly on the beat. There should be no rubato -- that is, no varying of pace or delaying or anticipation of the beat.

Joplin himself published six piano training exercises under the title School of Ragtime (published since by New York Public Library as part of Joplin's complete piano works). They emphasise how to play the right hand syncopations by building them from unsyncopated note patterns. Click here to view Joplin's piano exercises.

Scott Joplin emphasised that his rags should not be played too fast, but at a steady walking pace (see footnote**). The fact that he had to repeat this comment shows a tendency of other performers to play rags significantly faster. Nowadays, after 100 years of jazz and other popular music, we are used to a brisk pace and modern ragtime pianists including John Reade take rags faster than Joplin would have done. The performances of Joshua Rifkin take Joplin's rags at a very steady pace and to many modern ears they lack 'go'. There is a fairly recent (2002) CD published by Naxos of 14 Scott Joplin rags played by the Ukrainian classical pianist Alexander Peskanov. He takes Maple Leaf Rag at a very sprightly pace.

When playing from printed sheet music, it is not essential to follow precisely the printed notes. Rather a jazz pianist would make alterations to suit his or her own style of playing, and may even introduce larger variations of their own. For instance, Maple Leaf Rag has some octave passages in the right hand which small or inexperienced hands could find difficult; so just miss out the lower note and play the thirds.

An experienced jazz pianist would standardise his left hand for each chord in order to concentrate on improvising variations with the right hand. As examples of left hand practices, consider the two bars of music above, playing the C and G7 chords. Observe the interval of a sixth with D in the bass on the first beat of the G7 bar (second bar above). This was often used by Jelly Roll Morton for a richer and more pleasing sound. However, some pianists, including James P. Johnson, preferred only a single note instead of the octave. Others preferred a tenth on the first beat and a single note on the third beat: for example, Fats Waller, Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson.


** footnote. On the sheet music of several rags Joplin had printed "NOTICE! Don't play this piece fast. It is never right to play 'Ragtime' fast -- Author", A metronome mark is given on some pieces; crotchet = 100 in Pine Apple Rag and Sugar Cane, and as slow as crotchet = 76 in Eugenia, which also has the instruction 'Slow March Tempo'.