Scott Joplin, Ragtime and Beyond


Ragtime is a musical style originating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with roots in African American traditions as well as Euro-American music. It is marked by distinctly syncopated rhythms (e.g., putting emphasis on normally unaccented beats, or stretching the beat across the measure), and the name “ragtime” most likely derives from descriptions of this “ragged” rhythm. The label first appeared in the mid-1890s on popular songs with syncopated melodies and racially charged themes (called “coon” songs), and also on piano music with distinctly syncopated right hand rhythms. Scott Joplin (1868-1917) soon emerged as a leading composer of these piano rags. As one of the most successful composers of his day, he also attempted to elevate African American music through more “highbrow” compositions such as ballet and opera. Meanwhile, the ragtime style spread across the country and abroad, and helped pave the way for the development and popularity of jazz and the influence of African American music in other American popular musics.


  • The syncopated style of ragtime has roots in African American folk traditions, and was likely improvised in performance. Some scholars also trace ragtime to the cakewalk, a couples’ dance popular among slaves.
  • Ragtime was also influenced by popular American music such as blackface minstrelsy, and marching band music.
  • The first song published with the label “ragtime” was “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” by Ernest Hogan in 1896.
  • The piano rag developed into a specific type of composition with the formal structure of a march, and a complex, syncopated right hand part over a steady beat in the left hand. The first published piano rag was “Mississippi Rag” by William Krell in 1897. Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” from 1899 was the first to sell over a million copies.
  • Joplin became the “King of Ragtime” through the sales of his many piano rags, but he also composed a ballet and two operas, including Treemonisha (1911), which were not fully appreciated in his time. A precursor to the Harlem Renaissance, Joplin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1976.
  • While the ragtime craze in American popular song, band music and dance was in decline by Joplin’s death in 1917, the widespread success of ragtime helped popularize other African American roots music. Characteristics of ragtime style can be traced in jazz, and many forms of American popular music since.

Exploration Questions

  • In what ways does ragtime incorporate African American musical traditions?
  • How is the form of a piano rag similar to a march?
  • What were some of Scott Joplin’s musical influences? How did his music stand apart from his contemporaries?

Reflective Questions

  • Considering how difficult it is to perform ragtime, why did it surge in popularity?
  • Why did ragtime appeal to both white and black audiences?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Berlin, Edward. Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History. iUniverse, 2002. 276 pages. This is one of the most comprehensive studies of ragtime, exploring the origins, development and influence of the style in American popular song, piano music, and more.
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  • Berlin, Edward. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era. Oxford University Press, 2016. 456 pages. An extensive exploration into Joplin’s life and musical contributions.
    Click here to order