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date: 23 January 2021


  • Edward A. Berlin


A style of popular music that flourished from the mid-1890s to 1918. Its main identifying trait is its ragged—i.e., 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 performers for fullest realization. Ragtime songs, on the other hand, were generally less concerned with musical values; they were designed to reach a large and less discriminating audience.

Improvisation was common in ragtime, but little of this aspect of the style has been preserved. Our information on the style comes primarily from published sheet music and from non-improvised performances on recordings and piano rolls, sources that reveal a notable standardization of musical traits. The characteristic syncopated rhythm of ragtime was grafted onto an existing stock of conventions associated with the duple-meter march and two-step; occasionally, it was adapted also to the waltz. 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....

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