It’s Ragtime!

This groundbreaking musical genre, similarly too much other African American music, was born in southern churches; being that the first place many African Americans had access to pianos was the church. Although many Black musicians got their start in the church, this is a secular genre. In addition to churches, Ragtime was heavily influenced by African American folk music in the early 1900s. African roots and drums influenced the rhythm, which is a distinct rhythm characteristic of Ragtime.

Ragtime is a highly syncopated and extremely rhythmic form of music. Syncopation is the term describing emphasis of the “off” beat, the beat that is opposite of the songs pulse. The characteristics of this genre are not unique to itself, but it was one of the first genres to be characterized by these aspects, which makes it special. The songs of the Ragtime genre, called Rags, are sometimes poly-rhythmic (multiple different beats combined into one song) while maintaining melodic accents throughout. Most rags are majority instrumental, using a piano. It is a rarity to hear an authentic rag with vocal parts. Another inherent characteristic of the Ragtime genre is its complexity and intricacy. Most rags were extremely elaborate, which is one of the reasons composers began writing the music down. Ragtime is the first American genre to publish written sheet music. The second reason composers and musicians began writing sheet music is because it became clear there was big money to be made from their creations.

The widespread publishing of Ragtime sheet music brought a great deal of wealth into black communities. For the first time, African Americans were getting written recognition for their creations. This helped continue the elevation of black people. Although these social implications are positive, the success of Ragtime had negative effects on the black community as well. African Americans continued to display their musical gifts, which allowed them to land roles on T.V. shows, motion picture films, and radio shows. The more these opportunities for exposure grew for African Americans, the more they began being seen as only good for entertainment purposes. This is why, in present day, many African Americans believe it is easier to make a successful career for themselves in entertainment rather than other careers. So, while Ragtime music did an abundance of good for the African American community, in some aspects Blacks were forced to use it to their own long- term disadvantage.

Because of the huge spike in written musical compositions, many people began profiting from music that they did not write or that was heavily influenced by other musicians, and some musicians did not get the deserved recognition for their creations. Examples of this commodification are Minstrel Shows. Minstrel shows were the mocking and mimicking of Black people’s singing, dancing, and performing by Caucasians in black face. Often times the writers of the songs performed in Minstrel Shows did not get recognition or financial compensation for their music.

The Ragtime genre houses some of the greatest African American musicians of all time. There are two composers who are remembered as extremely instrumental in the development and legacy of Ragtime. The first great Ragtime composer, sometimes called the Father of Ragtime, is Scott Joplin. Joplin composed the “Maple Leaf Rag” (1909), which was the first American song to sell over one million copies. This song changed Joplin’s life forever, by making him a star, and it changed American music forever. The second extremely talented and Ragtime composer is Eubie Blake, who is most famous for his song: “Charleston Rag”.

Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin

Charleston Rag by Eubie Blake

These two musicians influenced future rag composers but also influenced many future American musical genres. Ragtime directly influenced the creation of Jazz, also known as Black classical music. Jazz musicians took Ragtime’s upbeat, dance- like rhythm, slowed it down, and added horns and vocals. This is when musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington began flourishing. Ragtime also directly influenced the creation of Tin Pan Alley. Caucasians in New York City who mimicked the rhythm and syncopation of Ragtime created this genre. Tin Pan Alley was not nearly as complex or intricate as Ragtime; it also lacked the soul of Black musicians that always accompanied authentic rags.

Ragtime is exceptionally special because it was the first genre to use syncopation and intricate rhythms in its music, in addition to being the first genre to publish written sheet music. Ragtime is the first genre to directly influence a Caucasian musical creation. It also seems to have had some influence over American musical theatre. Although many musical theatre pieces are not as intricate, they are very similar in style. I appreciate Ragtime for its cheerful, dance-like nature, and I believe all music lovers should hold it with high regard.


I hope you have enjoyed my analysis of Ragtime!

Thank you so much for reading,

Nia Jackson

What's your password?

Login to your account

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website.