- Edward A. Berlin
A style of popular music, chiefly American, that flourished from about 1896 to 1918. Its main identifying trait is its ragged or syncopated rhythm. While today it is most commonly thought of as a piano style, during the ragtime period the term also referred to other instrumental music, to vocal music and to dance. The best instrumental ragtime pieces manifested sophisticated musical thought and demanded considerable technical facility of a performer for their fullest realization. Ragtime songs, on the other hand, were generally less concerned with musical values, designed as they were to reach a large and undiscriminating audience.
Improvisation was common in ragtime, but little of this has been preserved. Our information comes primarily from non-improvised performances on recordings and piano rolls and from published sheet music, sources that reveal a notable standardization of musical tracts. The characteristic syncopated rhythm of ragtime was grafted onto an existing stock of conventions associated with the duple-metre march and two-step. While these conventions are themselves unremarkable, an understanding of their application to ragtime provides a useful vantage point for viewing the musical character of ragtime and its relation to other genres of the time....