What Is Ragtime?

Photo of Scott Joplin
Stringer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Considered the first completely American music, ragtime was popular towards the end of the 19th century and into the first two decades of the 20th century, roughly 1893 to 1917. It is the style of music that preceded jazz.

Musical Characteristics

Structured in a way similar to the march, ragtime’s use of syncopation is largely what distinguished it. Its rhythms made it lively and springy, and therefore ideal for dancing.

Its name is believed to be a contraction of the term “ragged time,” which refers to its rhythmically broken up melodies.


Ragtime developed in African American communities throughout the southern parts of the Midwest, particularly Missouri. Bands would combine the structure of marches with black songs and dances such as the cakewalk. The music, which predated the explosion of sound recordings, became widespread through the sale of published sheet music and piano rolls. In this way, it contrasts sharply from early jazz, which was spread by recordings and live performances.

Ragtime Composers

  • Scott Joplin – Perhaps the most famous composer of ragtime music, Joplin composed two highly popular pieces, “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag.”
  • Jelly Roll Morton – A prolific performer and outspoken personality, Morton made many recordings and his music is regarded as a bridge between ragtime and early jazz. His most famous pieces are “King Porter Stomp” and “Black Bottom Stomp.”
  • Eubie Blake – Getting his start playing ragtime piano in vaudeville acts, Blake co-composed “Shuffle Along,” a 1921 musical revue that was the first Broadway hit composed by African Americans.
  • James P. Johnson – One of the originators of the style known as ​stride piano, Johnson combined elements of ragtime with the blues and improvisation, leading the way towards early jazz.
  • Joseph Lamb – Encouraged by his hero, Scott Joplin, Lamb had many of his rags published between 1908 and 1920. He was a member of the “Big Three” ragtime composers, which also included Joplin and James Scott.
  • James Scott – A member of the “Big Three,” Scott published "Climax Rag," "Frog Legs Rag," and "Grace and Beauty" from Missouri, ragtime’s hub.