How to Write Ragtime Music on the Piano


Ever wanted to write your own ragtime music for the piano? Stuck for ideas about how to get started?

It can be tricky to write piano music of any kind when you have to start from scratch. Instead, why not base your composition on an existing melody? Work your way through this article and you'll see exactly how you might go about it.

Although the examples used are specifically for piano - or keyboard - you can follow the same process to write ragtime music for any instrument you choose.

What is Ragtime?

Ragtime is a style of music that makes use of off-beat or syncopated rhythms, giving it a "ragged" feeling. Scott Joplin is the most well-known ragtime composer. As a genre it flourished during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Writing Ragtime Piano Music: Step 1

To get started, you need a melody. Rather than make up my own, I've taken the first four notes from Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" to give me something to work with.

You can see these four notes in the first bar of music below. To create the second bar I simply repeated the same pattern four notes higher. Whenever you repeat a pattern at a different pitch like this it's called a sequence.

These two bars together give me the beginnings of an original ragtime tune. I'm keen to add the left hand as well, and I want it to stand out from the melody, to act as accompaniment without getting in the way of the tune. I did this by using basic 3-note chords or triads which I decided to play staccato and in various inversions. It's important that the two hands are different to give the piece variety and depth.

Ragtime bars 1 and 2
Ragtime bars 1 and 2

You'll notice the instruction "Swing it!" at the beginning of the piece. This tells the perfomer to add a jazzy lilt to the music rather than playing the notes in strict time.

What is Swing?

Swing comes from the phrase "swing feel" where performers put the emphasis on the off-beat in popular jazz music. Swing was popular in the 1930s when "swing" bands were all the rage.

Writing Ragtime Piano Music: Step 2

As you probably know, music is an organic art form. Once you start using an idea, it's best to let the music grow out of that idea and lead you where it may. That's what Beethoven and Mozart did so well.

Because the first two bars used a rising pattern, I decided to make bar 3 go in the opposite direction. You can see that the melody in bar 4 is simply a slight variation on the opening phrases, helping to take the tune to the dominant key of G.

Ragtime bars 3 and 4
Ragtime bars 3 and 4

Writing Ragtime Piano Music: Step 3

The next part of the process involves repetition. Unlike a piece of artwork or a book, most people reference music by listening to it. That means that certain phrases and ideas need to be repeated, giving them something to relate to. Hearing an idea or phrase for the second time helps them get familiar with the music and also enables them to recognize what's happening more easily.

The first two bars of the piece are repeated exactly in bars 5 and 6. Bar 7 is the same as the first half of bar 3, played twice, while bar 8 is altered to add variety and provide a stopping place or cadence. This is at the end of the first section which makes a good place to come to rest temporarily. You'll also notice that the music ends up back in the original key of C again.

Ragtime bars 7 and 8
Ragtime bars 7 and 8

Writing Ragtime Piano Music: Step 4

Now the music moves into the subdominant key of F. This provides a change of tonality and that all-important variety mentioned above. It also gives listeners something new to enjoy - too much repetition will simply make the piece sound boring.

In this middle section the rhythm is the same as in the opening melody, but this time the notes are different, revolving around the note C. Keeping the same rhythm in a new tune is one way to establish continuity.

In bars 9 and 10 this "new tune" is expanded to revolve around the note D and take us gradually to land in the dominant key of G. This announces the end of the middle section and sets us up ready to hear the final portion of the piece.

Ragtime bars 9 and 10
Ragtime bars 9 and 10
Ragtime bars 11 and 12
Ragtime bars 11 and 12
Joplin - Complete Rags for Piano (Schirmer's Library of Musical Classics) Vol. 2020
Joplin - Complete Rags for Piano (Schirmer's Library of Musical Classics) Vol. 2020

All of Scott Joplin's ragtime piano pieces in one handy book from the leading publishers of classic piano literature.


Writing Ragtime Piano Music: Step 5

The piece ends as it began, reminding listeners about the opening theme. The first four bars are repeated exactly in bars 13, 14, 15 and 16. Then we hear bars 1 and 2 for the last time before a brand new tune enters the mix, played by the right hand only.

To bring things to a satisfactory close, both hands play a short melodic fragment based on the original rhythm of the opening melody, the right hand moving up, and the left hand moving down.

Ragtime final two bars
Ragtime final two bars

Example of Ragtime Piano Music

You can see and print the whole tune - which is called "Extended Rag" - by following this link to the piece on Score Exchange:

You can also hear me play the piece in the accompanying video above.

Ragtime Music Quiz

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Comments 2 comments

Antonio Martinez1 profile image

Antonio Martinez1 9 months ago from Kearny, New Jersey

An astonishing account of how to write ragtime music. As a composer myself, I can say without a doubt that writing for ragtime is one of the most enjoyable form of music to write, particularly because of the repetition and the structure that goes with writing a ragtime piece. I remember Christmas 13 years ago that I got a book of Scott Joplin's Rags and, at first, I never really understood much about American music (most of my interests related to classical music).

However, after playing a few Joplin rags (notably Elite Syncopations, The Sycamore and Kismet Rag), it would be something of a blessing. More recently, as a native New Jersey resident, one of the three pioneers of ragtime was born in Montclair: Joseph Lamb and his background also became an inspiration for me to continue ragtime and its continuing revival.

I am proud to say that during 2015, I wrote 14 more (of my 22) ragtime pieces, drawing inspiration from ragtime but also from classical music and doing so in rather unorthodox ways. I hope to continue to venture into ragtime while also drawing inspiration not only from the great ragtime composers such as Joplin, Lamb and James Scott but also from this guide.

Thanks for a great article and perhaps one day I would love to listen to your ragtime pieces.

JohnMello profile image

JohnMello 9 months ago from England Author

Thanks for the comprehensive comment Antonio Martinez1! Glad you liked my article :)

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