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A Little History
Ragtime is probably the first pure American popular musical genre. It is characterized by a heavily syncopated melody over a regularly accented bass. Like any musical style, Ragtime had its roots in a broad range of earlier music and experience, including traveling minstrel-shows, plantation songs, brass bands, cakewalks and other music with strong African-American influences - even the parodies of white musicians imitating black musical forms.
Ragtime was originally created by itinerant professional performers in the saloons and brothels of the post civil-war years. The artists rarely sold their work, making enough money to live well by way of the tips that accompanied their performances in bars and on stage.
Ragtime is an extremely sophisticated genre that requires no small amount of technical skill. Ragtime evolved as a style through the years as piano players began to compete with each other to see who could play these exuberant songs in the most RAGGED or syncopated manner. It was eventually widely distributed in the form of both piano rolls and printed music. The period when Ragtime was popular extended from about 1900 until the beginning of World War I and this was known as the "Golden Age of Ragitme"
During this period Ragtime reached what is known as its classic form under the leadership of the composer known today as the King Of Ragtime Writers, Scott Joplin. Joplin established a structure and form for ragtime compositions to which the majority of the composers of the time adhered. This structure comprises four 16-bar strains or themes. These four strains (Labeled A, B, C, and D) are played in this sequence- AABBACCDD. That is, the first strain (A) is played and repeated, followed by the B strain and its repeat. Then the A strain is reprised once, followed by the C, repeated C, D, and repeated D strains.
Basic Ragtime could be defined as a left hand bass part consisting of octaves and chords played on the beat and a right hand melody part which contains several notes which were played between the beats. This is called syncopation. To illustrate, let's take a simple melody, "Mary Had A Little Lamb", and see how it would be played in ragtime.
Now that's what ragtime is all about.
Stride piano is nothing more than an evolution of ragtime. James P. Johnson was the prime innovator of stride piano. He embellished basic ragtime syncopation , beginning with a general increase in tempo. As a side note, Scott Joplin routinely prefaced many of his compositions with the advisory - "Never play ragtime fast". Stride is characteristically faster than ragtime.
Secondly, he substituted 10ths in the bass instead of octaves. What
The left hand bass accompaniment was often embellished with "back beats": rhythmic displacements of the regular left hand alternation of bass (octaves or 10ths) on the downbeats and chords on the upbeats, with fancy groupings of bass and chords which added melodic interest. to James P. Johnson using back beats to liven up the bass in this strain of his "Carolina Shout".
Then he gave everything a swing rhythm. What's that? It's when a group of notes (usually the melody) which are written as evenly spaced notes are played in a long-short-long-short-long-short rhythm. Here's an example: to these evenly spaced notes. Now to the same notes played with a swing rhythm.
To top it all off he embellished his music with fanciful improvisations
called tricks or licks.
I have interrupted the piece part way through to explain that what you will hear next is one the finest examples of syncopation and back beats you will ever hear in stride piano. as we continue with James P. Johnson's "Snowy Mornin' Blues" and listen carefully to the interplay of the rolled 10ths and back beats with the right hand melody. It's very complicated rhythmically, but you never lose track of the beat.
And that, my friend is STRIDE piano!
Novelty Piano developed as a natural evolution of ragtime during the 1920's. Zez Confrey was the king of the Novelty Piano composer/pianists. Others were also quite proficient in the genre. Artists such as Louis Alter, Roy Bargey, Rube Bloom, Billy Mayerl, Ralph Rainger, Arthur Schutt, and even George Gershwin were expert Piano Novelty composers. Although the idiom has become obscure in current times there are contemporary composers who are writing excellent Novelty Piano pieces. I call your attention to the works of Robin Frost and others which are found here in the Library.
According to David Jasen & Trebor Tichenor in Rags & Ragtime, a Musical History, "Novelty piano ragtime was a product of American pianists with classical music training who originally arranged and performed popular songs on piano rolls. The idea was developed from those hand-played piano roll artists who were ordered to make full, rich arrangements so the player roll customers felt they had gotten their money's worth. Using their piano roll tricks, they put together an extremely complex rhythmic and harmonic series of progressions which demanded the greatest technical skill to perform... The distinctive sound of the Novelty rag is a combination of the influence of the French Impressionists - Claude Debussey and Maurice Ravel - with contrasting rhythms as used by the roll arrangers. Chromaticism is at the heart of the Novelty tradition... Probably the most striking hallmark of Novelty writing is the use of consecutive fourths in the melody voicing."
Most music scholars now agree (including Jasen & Tichenor) that it is incorrect to refer to Novelty Piano music as Novelty Ragtime. It is a genre unto itself.
To help you more easily understand Jasen & Tichenor's explanation of Novelty Piano, I have placed some musical examples below which should help you appreciate and recognize Novelty Piano music.
Now and enjoy the entire composition - "Bluin' the Black Keys" by Arthur Schutt - A perfect example of Novelty Piano. Listen to the complicated rhythms, the chromatics and the fourths. They are all there, just as Jasen & Tichenor described.
For further listening I refer you to the following pieces in
Other related links you should look at:
Want more? Be sure to listen to or download all The Ragtime, Novelty
Thanks to the following who made contributions to this page:
Weber Piano Company, Warren Trachtman, Irwin Schwartz
© 1997, 1999 John E. Roache. The MIDI performances available at this site are
all performance copyright 1995-1999 by John E. Roache and may NOT be used for any commercial use
whatsoever without permission. The MIDI sequences may be freely distributed for non-commercial
use only in their compressed .ZIP form with all attached text files.
DISCLAIMER: Please note this is a FREE MIDI musical site. All the songs contained in this
site are either in the public domain or the composer and/or publisher has given permission for
use. The music and information on this website are intended only for the enjoyment of those who
care to listen to it. If there is any infringement on anyone's rights, or any material on my site
that the author objects to its use here, I will remove same on being notified.
The Ragtime Midi Libraries of John E. Roache, Send EMAIL
DISCLAIMER: Please note this is a FREE MIDI musical site. All the songs contained in this site are either in the public domain or the composer and/or publisher has given permission for use. The music and information on this website are intended only for the enjoyment of those who care to listen to it. If there is any infringement on anyone's rights, or any material on my site that the author objects to its use here, I will remove same on being notified.
The Ragtime Midi Libraries of John E. Roache, Send EMAIL