Ragtime music, with its distinctive syncopated rhythms and lively melodies, has captured the hearts of music lovers for over a century. One of the most iconic instruments associated with ragtime is the piano, which served as the backbone of many ragtime compositions.
And in this post, we’ll explore 12 of the greatest and most famous ragtime piano pieces from the early days of the genre. So whether you’re a seasoned pianist or a casual listener, check out some of these timeless classics of Ragtime.
Table of Contents
1. “The Entertainer” By Scott Joplin
If you are looking for a beautiful piece of Ragtime music, you will definitely want to check out “The Entertainer.” Written by the Ragtime King, Scott Joplin, it gained popularity during the early 1900s and then again in the 1970s.
For many people, “The Entertainer” is one of the first pieces that pop into their minds when they think about piano music. The composition is happy, upbeat, and is guaranteed to lift anybody’s mood.
Beginner players might find this piece difficult, as one’s hands must be an octave span several times throughout the piece. But intermediate players, and most definitely experts, can be masters of “The Entertainer” easily.
2. “Top Liner Rag” By Joseph Lamb
If you are looking for a hit you can play for other people, consider giving “Top Liner Rag” a try! It was written by Joseph Lamb—who was considered one of the big three of ragtime music, together with James Scott and Scott Joplin—in 1916.
Published by Stark Music Co. and originally titled “Cotton Tail,” “Top Liner Rag” is overall considered the best of Lamb’s heavy ragtime songs.
Of note, the piece is written in cut time. What this means is that the rhythm is 2/4. It will quickly draw the listener in but gives the player the urge to play it faster and faster. To avoid this, consider using a metronome.
3. “Maple Leaf Rag” By Scott Joplin
Here is another fun piece written by Scott Joplin. Published in 1899, “Maple Leaf Rag” is the one he composed that gained him the King of Ragtime title. It is also considered to have set the standard for the genre.
If you are used to classical ragtime music, this is a piece that will definitely test your skills in different ways.Though the tempo is slower, good coordination is needed, particularly with the left hand, due to the two-octave leaps in the trio of the C section.
Notably, lyrics were added to “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1903 by Sydney Brown. Unlike the composition, which is in A-flat, the song is in E-flat. The C section was also removed.
4. “Elite Syncopations” By Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin shows up again with this popular piano piece. Published in 1903, “Elite Syncopations” is among his popular ragtime pieces. It’s named after the off-beat, bouncing rhythms ragtime is characterized.
As you play this piece, the baseline is going to act as an exceptional countermelody to the tune being played in the right hand. In addition, there are a variety of chromatic tricks to tickle the ear, particularly in the A section.
In the 1970s, a ballet of the same name was launched by Kenneth MacMillan, who, at that time, was the Royal Ballet’s artistic director. “Elite Syncopations” is among the ragtime pieces featured in the performance.
5. “Black And White Rag” By George Botsford
“Black and White Rag” is a piece published in 1908. It was written by George Botsford, one of the most iconic composers of his era, and was recorded for both piano and phonograph.
Botsford received a formal music education, so “Black and White Rag” does not necessarily have the same level of flexibility as the others on this list, but it was still written in the ragtime style nonetheless.
In 1941, jazz pianist Wally Rose recorded the most popular version of this piece. Though “Black and White Rag” was created for the piano, it became a standard for the fiddle by Benny Thomasson and Johnny Gimble.
6. “Tiger Rag” By Jelly Roll Morton
In 1917, the Original Dixieland Jass (changed to Jazz in 1917) Band recorded and copyrighted “Tiger Rag.” Jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton composed the popular piano version most known today.
“Tiger Rag” is a beautiful mixture of both jazz and ragtime music, and there are a number of fun tricks that Morton used to bring out the best of both. There is a lot of overlap between jazz and ragtime, and you will definitely hear them working well together in this music.
This ragtime piece is so popular that a number of artists have recorded it, from Louie Armstrong to the Beatles to Les Paul and many more. In 2002, the US Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry.
7. “Frog Legs Rag” By James Scott
The third of the big three of ragtime, we have next James Scott, one of the most prolific ragtime composers of the era. “Frog Legs Rag” was a piece he composed around 1906.
The composition was published to critical acclaim and was the second most commercially successful—first was “Maple Leaf Rag,” discussed earlier—at the time.
“Frog Legs Rag” has a similar but more sophisticated take on the B section of “Maple Leaf Rag” in its own B section. It also features Scott’s characteristic echo in the D section, which can be heard in most of his rag pieces.
8. “The Charleston Rag” By Eubie Blake
Composed and published in 1899 by Eubie Blake, “The Charleston Rag” was one of the most popular pieces of the era. It was often played with a number of other musical instruments. That being said, it can certainly be played solo on the piano.
Even though there are numerous rhythms that are found throughout the piece, you will also hear swing undertones that would soon emerge in the 1900s. You will also hear a lot of musical traits that are reflected in the compositions of later ragtime composers, like Jelly Roll Morton.
9. “The Mississippi Rag” By William Henry Krell
If you are looking for something that is a bit off the beaten path, you may want to check out “The Mississippi Rag” by William Henry Krell. Composed in 1897, it is said that the piece is the first ever ragtime number published.
However, “The Mississippi Rag” has a less syncopated rhythm in it than most traditionalists like. So much so that it is often referred to as a cakewalk piece rather than ragtime, because of its title, it became prominent in rag history.
Test your skills on (or listen to) “The Mississippi Rag,” and pay attention to the rhythm build up toward the middle, then slow down near the end of the sheet music.
10. “Grace And Beauty” By James Scott
Next up, we have another classic composed by James Scott. “Grace and Beauty” was published by John Stillwell Stark in 1909 and is among Scott’s best ragtime pieces.
With a scintillating rhythm, “Grace and Beauty” has an intro that smoothly transitions into the A section with a rising harmony. Sections repeat throughout the piece, and the C section features an echo device Scott is well-known for using in his ragtime compositions.
The syncopated beat of “Grace and Beauty” isn’t very fast and upbeat. As the name suggests, it has a more polished tone than most ragtimes already mentioned here.
11. “The Cake Walk In The Sky” By Ben Harney
“The Cake Walk in the Sky” was composed by Benjamin Robertson Harney in 1899. It might not be as popular as some of the other pieces on the list, but it is definitely a unique piece from the ragtime movement.
Soon after, Harney composed a version of “The Cake Walk in the Sky” with lyrics. This became the first written vocal rag or scat.
It is interesting to note that on the original cover of the sheet music, it states that “The Cake Walk in the Sky” was a “Rag-time Nightmare.” But you be the judge of that; try the piece out or give it a listen!
12. “The Cascades” By Scott Joplin
We began the list with a piece composed by Scott Joplin, and we’ll conclude with another of his work as well. “The Cascades,” published in 1904, is not one of the most well-known pieces by the composer, yet it is no less important.
Joplin wrote “The Cascades,” especially for the St. Louis World’s Fair that year. The titleis for the centerpiece of the fair—a cascade of 14 waterfalls.
The tune itself is almost as tinkling as water flowing and splashing, with a portion of the B and C section having your fingers cascade over the piano keys over a few octaves.
Summing Up Our List Of Popular Ragtime Piano Pieces
In the end, these are just a few of the numerous pieces available if you are thinking about giving ragtime music a try. A very popular form of piano that is still played to this day, each one is worth a try.
So whether you’re here to know which ragtime compositions to play yourself on the piano or something new to listen to, there’s bound to be one we’ve mentioned that will suit your fancy.
Have we missed a ragtime piano piece that should be on the list? Let us know, and we’ll add it for you!
Who was the most famous ragtime pianist? ›
Scott Joplin, (born 1867/68, Texas, U.S.—died April 1, 1917, New York, New York), American composer and pianist known as the “king of ragtime” at the turn of the 20th century.What is a common ragtime song? ›
"Maple Leaf Rag", "The Entertainer", "Fig Leaf Rag", "Frog Legs Rag", and "Sensation Rag" are among the most popular songs of the genre.Who is the single most important figure in composed ragtime music? ›
Scott Joplin, called the “King of Ragtime,” published the most successful of the early rags, “The Maple Leaf Rag,” in 1899. Joplin, who considered ragtime a permanent and serious branch of classical music, composed hundreds of short pieces, a set of études, and operas in the style.What is know as the biggest selling ragtime song in history? ›
Popularity and legacy. There have been many claims about the sales of the "Maple Leaf Rag", for example that 1 million copies of the sheet music were sold in the composer's lifetime, making Scott Joplin the first musician to sell 1 million copies of a piece of instrumental music.What is the most famous ragtime piece? ›
- 1. “ The Entertainer” By Scott Joplin.
- 2. “ Top Liner Rag” By Joseph Lamb.
- 3. “ Maple Leaf Rag” By Scott Joplin.
- 4. “ Elite Syncopations” By Scott Joplin.
- 5. “ Black And White Rag” By George Botsford.
- 6. “ Tiger Rag” By Jelly Roll Morton.
- 7. “ ...
- 8. “
The Entertainer by Scott Joplin (1868-1917)
This is doubtless the most famous piece of Ragtime music ever composed. It was written around 1902 and gained steadily in popularity.
Almost certainly, however, the term is a contraction for "ragged time," denoting a style of playing piano or banjo where the melody is "broken up" into short, syncopated rhythms while a steady overall beat is either played (piano) or implied (banjo).Is ragtime easy? ›
So, is ragtime hard to play? Ragtime is too hard for complete beginners, but is approachable by those who have been playing piano seriously for at least 2-3 years. Ragtime requires you to have a strong sense of rhythm and some technical proficiency to play it well.Is ragtime a root of jazz? ›
Ragtime is primarily a solo piano style and was the immediate precursor to jazz. It originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.Who is father of ragtime? ›
Scott Joplin was one of America's most renowned black composers, garnering the title of “King of Ragtime.” Born in 1868 as the second of six children to an ex-slave from North Carolina and a freeborn woman from Kentucky, his birthday and place of birth remain points of contention to this day.
Who were the great ragtime pianists of the era? ›
- Mike Bernard (1875–1936)
- George Botsford (1874–1949)
- Louis Chauvin (1881–1908)
- Ben Harney (1872–1938)
- Tony Jackson (1882–1921)
- Scott Joplin (1868–1917)
- Jelly Roll Morton (1890–1941)
- Tom Turpin (1871–1932)
The King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin.What was the hardest Scott Joplin rag? ›
During his lifetime, Maple Leaf Rag was regarded as a bit of a 'test piece'. If you could play Maple Leaf Rag, then you were regarded as a proper ragtime professor! Later on, Joplin wrote Fig Leaf Rag to supersede Maple Leaf Rag's 'most difficult' status.What song has brought in the most money? ›
In 1893, the Hill sisters needed a song for their kindergarten class to sing on birthdays. Fast forward 120 years and "Happy Birthday" is by far the richest and most profitable song of all time. The Ownership of "Happy Birthday" has changed hands a few times in the last 100 years.What were Scott Joplin's two most famous rags? ›
Stark published Felicity Rag in 1911 and Kismet Rag in 1913, two works that Joplin had composed in collaboration with Scott Hayden a decade earlier. In 1912 Stern published Scott Joplin's New Rag. In 1913 Joplin formed, with his new wife Lottie, his own publishing company, and they issued Magnetic Rag in 1914.What is Scott Joplin most famous piece? ›
What are Joplin's most famous pieces? Maple Leaf Rag was published in 1899, and in the decade after his unexpected hit with Maple Leaf Rag, Joplin composed and published around 40 piano rags and became the most widely celebrated and highest earning of Stark's house composers.How many original ragtime pieces did Joplin write? ›
He was an American composer and pianist, who achieved fame for his ragtime compositions, and was dubbed "The King of Ragtime." During his career, Joplin wrote over 40 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas.What is honky-tonk piano? ›
A honky-tonk piano has a similar tone as a tack piano, however, the method of obtaining its sound is different, and simply involves one or more strings of each key being slightly detuned, without the use of tacks. The resultant sound produces acoustic beats in a manner similar to undulating organ stops.Why is ragtime difficult? ›
Ragtime music's main characteristics are a duple bass and a syncopated melody; there are some rag tunes that do not fit this exact mold. The hardest part of playing this type of music on the piano is that you are playing three parts; the harmony, the melody, and the bass line.Is ragtime black music? ›
Ragtime music is truly African-American music. It combines rhythms that were brought to this country by slaves, with musical forms brought over to the United States from Europe. Ragtime uses syncopated rhythms — that is, the accents in the melody are shifted away from the strong beats in the bass line underneath.
Is ragtime older than jazz? ›
Ragtime – Ragtime is primarily a solo piano style; it was the immediate precursor of jazz. A. It originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.How fast should ragtime be played? ›
Somewhere between 110 and 120 always seems to be the pace I enjoy playing at without sounding too slow or too rushed.What was the first ragtime piece? ›
Tom Turpin's “Harlem Rag” (1897) is the first ragtime song published by an African American. Scott Joplin, dubbed “The King of Ragtime Writers” by his contemporaries, is the best-known composer of ragtime.What came first blues or jazz? ›
Both genres originated in the Southern United States around the late 1800s to early 1900s, with blues arriving first, then jazz a little later. Both were inventions of African Americans, who combined African musical concepts with European musical concepts, thus making these both uniquely American music genres.Is ragtime a form of blues? ›
Ragtime blues, a subset of the blues linked to the Piedmont guitar style, involved adapting the piano techniques of ragtime jazz to its six-string counterpart.Why is ragtime considered the first truly American pop music? ›
Ragtime is sometimes considered the first truly American form of music. Like America itself, ragtime is a synthesis, a melting pot of styles and cultures. It is a combination of classical European music with various African styles. It's easy to tell when you're hearing ragtime: you'll hear a “ragged” beat.Who were the 3 big composers for ragtime? ›
Together, Joplin, James Scott, and Joseph Lamb, comprise what is generally regarded as the "big three" of piano ragtime composition. Like ragtime, jazz had long roots in African American oral tradition before reaching the broader American public.Who made ragtime music popular? ›
Ragtime became the rage through the sales of published sheet music. Scott Joplin, a ragtime composer, became famous after the publication of his “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899.What happened to the baby in ragtime? ›
In Harlem, Coalhouse Walker fathered Sarah's child and still loves her, even though she ran away from him, and resolves to win her back. She gave birth alone, frightened, and with extreme difficulty, which led her to unthinkingly bury her child.Who were three important stride pianists? ›
Prominent stride pianists include James P. Johnson, Willie "the Lion" Smith, Fats Waller, Luckey Roberts, Mrs Mills and Mary Lou Williams.
Who is an American ragtime and early jazz pianist? ›
September 20, 1890 – July 10, 1941), known professionally as Jelly Roll Morton, was an American ragtime and jazz pianist, bandleader, and composer.Who started the blues? ›
The origins of the blues are poorly documented, but it is believed that after the American Civil War (1861–65), formerly enslaved African Americans and their descendants created this genre while working on Southern plantations, taking inspiration from hymns, minstrel show music, work songs and field hollers, ragtime, ...Who is the master of ragtime? ›
Scott Joplin: King of Ragtime.Did Beethoven invent ragtime? ›
As a single composition, probably not. No more than Beethoven invented the rumba-tango style with the third movement of his Piano Concerto #1. However, Scott Joplin had very good classical music training. He was a big fan of Wagner which led him to write both the words and lyrics to his opera Treemonisha.Who is known as King of ragtime? ›
He was a legendary all-around musician and master of American music called “Ragtime.”Who is the father of ragtime? ›
Scott Joplin was one of America's most renowned black composers, garnering the title of “King of Ragtime.” Born in 1868 as the second of six children to an ex-slave from North Carolina and a freeborn woman from Kentucky, his birthday and place of birth remain points of contention to this day.Why is it called ragtime? ›
Ragtime (the term apparently derives from "ragged time," or syncopation) evolved in the late 19th century in the playing of honky-tonk pianists along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.Who invented ragtime piano? ›
One of ragtime's inventors and most important pianists and composers was Scott Joplin. Since ragtime was conceived and developed before records were invented, it was "recorded" on piano rolls.What does ragtime stand for? ›
Almost certainly, however, the term is a contraction for "ragged time," denoting a style of playing piano or banjo where the melody is "broken up" into short, syncopated rhythms while a steady overall beat is either played (piano) or implied (banjo).What culture is ragtime? ›
For starters, ragtime really emerged from nineteenth-century African American culture. The works of black ragtime composers—such as Scott Joplin and James Scott—became a part of everyday American life, crossing racial divides even in the midst of blatant inequality.
What are the three musical roots of ragtime? ›
Ragtime was created by Black piano players in the cities of the midwest and drew from drew from many earlier musical styles: African-American spirituals and minstrel songs, European folk melodies and military marches.Is ragtime African music? ›
Ragtime music is truly African-American music. It combines rhythms that were brought to this country by slaves, with musical forms brought over to the United States from Europe. Ragtime uses syncopated rhythms — that is, the accents in the melody are shifted away from the strong beats in the bass line underneath.Who made ragtime famous? ›
Ragtime became the rage through the sales of published sheet music. Scott Joplin, a ragtime composer, became famous after the publication of his “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899.