Musical Characteristics of Ragtime Jazz

by Michael Black
Ragtime Jazz is generally based around the piano.

Ragtime Jazz is generally based around the piano.

Hemera Technologies/ Images

Ragtime jazz is a type of music that was popular during the early 20th century. Ragtime was pioneered by artists such as Ben Harney, William Krell and Tom Turpin, but it is Scott Joplin who is most associated with the style. Ragtime jazz has a set of very specific musical characteristics.


The piano is almost always the main instrument in traditional ragtime jazz. Many of the most enduring ragtime compositions, such as Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" and William Krell's "Mississippi Rag," are actually solo piano pieces. Some songs, however, had other instruments accompanying the piano. A small string section composed of a bassist or a cellist and a violin was fairly common in ragtime compositions. Over the years, ragtime has been adapted for other instruments including the guitar (check out Chet Atkin's version of "The Entertainer").


Syncopation, a fancy word for irregular rhythm parts, is one of the hallmarks of ragtime jazz. The bass notes in a ragtime jazz song tend to be fairly straightforward, falling on every beat or an even subdivision of the beat, but the melody is generally fairly complex. Ragtime melodies often deviated from the driving bass rhythm, creating the jangly, almost metallic character of the style. Although not as rhythmically complex as some later forms of jazz, ragtime was very strongly syncopated for its time period.


Ragtime jazz songs are rigidly structured, and improvisation is generally frowned upon when playing a ragtime composition. Many ragtime songs are composed of four 16-measure segments of music that are played one after the other in rapid-fire succession. These sections of music are often grouped together using an ABCD or ABACD structure. Each ragtime song has a main theme that is almost always repeated multiple times throughout the composition. This theme can be slightly altered to fit in with a different section of the song.


Ragtime jazz harmonies are generally pretty basic. Movement from the tonic chord to the dominant chord is extremely common in ragtime music. Despite the simplicity of the overall harmonic movement in ragtime music, complex chromatic passing tones are quite common when moving between the tonic and the dominant chords. Key changes are also commonly used in ragtime, generally occurring when the song moves into a new section.

Photo Credits

  • Hemera Technologies/ Images