I tried writing a ragtime piece several months ago and wasn't successful.

What defines the ragtime style? Are there known go-to theoretical resources that discuss how to compose ragtime music?

My favorite ragtime artist is Scott Joplin. So that's the style I mean when I say ragtime.


Based on the video posted by Flounderer, I attempted to write a rag using exactly the same bass line as the video. I am not sure it qualifies as one, but if it does then future people with this question should watch that video as it goes step by step through what the author considers a rag.

Remark: So far, the only thing I understood about rags from that video was that rag time seems to occasionally involve desynchronizing the melody from the accompaniment.

Click here for sound:

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    A video that really helped me to understand the nature of ragtime is this one: youtube.com/watch?v=e8IM5-wUdng It explains why many people fail when they try to compose ragtime music.
    – Flounderer
    Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 20:46
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    You really need to revisit your notation. Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 3:50
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    @StanShunpike - sad to hear you don't care about notation. You'll find it hard to get people to play / listen to your music. As Gardner Reed said, "if you don't bother to take the time to write it down, why should I bother to take the time to play it?" I don't care how you write it, if you present it, it must be correct. It's akin to poor grammar - all it does is undermine your intelligence and presents a poor image of you as a "competent" composer. Do your own research to figure out what you need to fix. Three great resources: Gardner Reed, Kurt Stone, Elaine Gould. Look them up. Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 16:01
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    Hmm. Perhaps I should take it more seriously. I had no idea it mattered this much. I'll see what I turn up in the sources u mentioned. Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 16:28
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    There's a widely-available 'Collected Works'. But any collection of Joplin pieces will do. It's an easy style to imitate really.
    – Laurence
    Commented Feb 16, 2017 at 14:18

6 Answers 6


Let's take two archetypal rags - Black and White Rag and The Entertainer.

The left hand mostly plays a steady pattern of a bass note on the 1 and 3, and a chord on the 2 and 4.

          1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
LH chord    *   *   *   *
LH bass   *   *   *   *

Pretty much all ragtime has this regular oom-pah backing throughout, along with lead-ins and linking patterns.

But lots of musical styles have a backing just like this. What makes it ragtime is the syncopated rhythm of the right hand:

The Black and White Rag melody (ignoring the intro and the anacrusis and going straight to the main melody) is a 3 note pattern of half-notes:

          1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
High note   *  *  *  * *
Mid note   *  *  *  *   *
Low note  *  *  *  *     *
LH chord    *   *   *   *
LH bass   *   *   *   *

Notice how the melody notes line up with the left hand - it's creating a polyrhythm in which the 3 note "pulse" of the melody comes in and out of phase with the basic left-hand 4/4 rhythm. But, at the end of two bars, the pattern varies, to "reset" and re-anchor the melody to the left-hand.

The first two bars of The Entertainer do the same thing, but with rests in place of some of the melody notes:

          1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
High note                *
Mid note   *  *  *      *
Low note  *  *  *      *  
LH chord    *   *   *   *
LH bass   *   *   *   *

(I've fudged melody, but not the timing, of the last three notes, just to squeeze it into three pitches)

This shows the syncopation more strongly - we hear the two-note pattern once with the first note on the downbeat, once with the first note just after the upbeat (and the second note on the downbeat), once with the first note on the upbeat.

Because the second note is higher, and the tonic, it feels like the accent of the melody, and it comes

  • first time, half a beat after the downbeat,
  • second time, on a downbeat,
  • third time, half a beat before a downbeat.

It's that shifting accent relative to the steady left-hand rhythm that makes ragtime.

I'd suggest working through your favourite rags, to see how the various sections have similar polyrhythms. Then try and replicate that in your own patterns.

  • @Slim let me see if I understand: Rag involves that standard LH chord-bass thing. I've seen that recur so it looks pretty characteristic. But the RH not only is syncopated but also tries to time it so that way different notes in the melody occur at key tonal points in the LH part to create a sense of....well rag. But the point is that, it's not just syncopation but also where the key events in the melody land relative to the LH part. Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 22:23
My favorite ragtime artist is Scott Joplin. So that's the style I mean when I say ragtime.

Well, that's sort of like "how do I compose baroque music? My favorite baroque artist is J.S. Bach. So that's the style I mean when I say baroque."

Scott Joplin killed ragtime just like Bach killed baroque music, leaving not much leeway to say anything sufficiently impressive. You work hard on something in that direction and then you figure out that it does not actually sound as good as those minor Joplin/Bach pieces or finger exercises nobody is really interested in hearing any more these days ("Two part inventions" anybody?).

Well, take revenge on both. Take some reasonably well-known semi-polyphonic Bach (Toccata D minor BWV565 anybody?) and rag it apart: put a basic sewing machine rhythm in the right hand, organize the left hand to have a semi-walking bass, pull apart all chords in the right hand into clean one-to-three note harmonies, put those parts working with the walking bass line on-beat and the others in between and leave out and fill in material until everything is working out.

It's somewhat akin to putting a violin shuffle on some melody. Take a look at the following unfinished fragment and figure out what it is without hearing the Midi first (unfortunately, it would appear that attaching a Midi file to an answer is not possible without hosting it somewhere, so I am appending the source at the end, and maybe somebody else will put the fragment somewhere). It's a mixture of "real" material, bass notes and fill-in patterns falling into line. Of course, starting with "real" material is a bit of cheating but you have to start somewhere.

I seem to remember that Scott Joplin actually wrote some sort of "how to write ragtime" guide. I may be mistaken about that, but if he did, trying to get a hold of that might be a good idea, too.

And PostScriptum: LilyPond melody fragment source:

    \language "deutsch"

    \version "2.17.20"

    \paper { #(set-paper-size "a4" 'landscape) }
    #(set-global-staff-size 30)

    melody = {
       \clef treble
       \set Staff.midiInstrument = "violin"
       \key d \major
       \time 4/4  % s2.. <a fis'>16 <a fis'>
     <a fis'>16 <a fis'> <fis' a'> <a fis'> <a e'> <e' a'> <a d'> <a d'>
     <a fis'>-1-3 <a fis'> <a fis'> <fis' h'> <a fis'> <a fis'> <fis' c''> <a fis'>
     <a fis'> <a fis'> <fis' a'> <a fis'> <a e'> <e' a'> <a d'> <a d'>
     <h fis'> <h fis'> <h fis'> <fis' c''> <h fis'> <h fis'> <fis' h'> <h fis'>
     <h fis'> <h fis'> <g' h'> <h g'> <h fis'> <fis' h'> <h e'> <h e'>
     <cis' e'> <cis' e'> <cis' e'> <e' cis''> <cis' e'> <cis' e'> <e' h'> <cis' e'>
     <cis' a'> <cis' a'> <a' a'> <cis' a'> <cis' g'> <g' a'> <cis' e'> <cis' e'>
     <fis' a'> <c' fis'> <c' fis'> <fis' h'> <h fis'> <h fis'> <fis' a'> <b fis'>
     <a fis'> <a fis'> <fis' a'> <a fis'> <a e'> <e' a'> <a d'> <a d'>
     <a fis'>-1-3 <a fis'> <a fis'> <fis' c''> <a fis'> <a fis'> <fis' h'> <a fis'>
     <a fis'> <a fis'> <fis' a'> <a fis'> <a e'> <e' a'> <a d'> <a d'>
     <h fis'> <h fis'> <h fis'> <fis' h'> <h fis'> <h fis'> <fis' c''> <h fis'>
     <h g'> <h g'> <g' h'> <h g'> <h fis'> <fis' h'> <h e'> <h e'>
     <a' a'>-4-0 <cis' a'>-3-4 <c' a'>-2-4 <a' h'>-4-1 <h a'>-2-4 <b a'>-1-4-1 <a' c''> <h a'>
     <a' h'> <gis' h'> <a' g''> <g' a'> <g' c''> <cis'' g''> <g' c''> <e' dis'>


    \score {
       \new Staff
       \layout { }

       \midi {
        \tempo 4 = 60

Scott Bradlee is a pianist well-known for his ragtime/swing/vintage style arrangements of modern pop songs. He has written an e-book called Ragtimify in which he explains the basics of the ragtime style that he uses in his arrangement process. (Disclaimer: I am in no way financially associated with him or this product.)

Without going into the level of detail found in the book, the basics are (as others have already mentioned) a "stride bass" in the left hand, and a syncopated right hand with some chromatic passing tones. The stride bass refers to the root and fifth of the chord (possibly doubled at the octave) being alternately played on the strong beats (1 & 3) of the measure, while full chords are voiced in the middle of the keyboard (right around middle C) on the weak beats (2 & 4). This means the left hand is constantly hopping around, which can be very tricky to do.


My answer is short:

  • "oompah" bass with chords on beats two and four
  • chromatic mediants
  • augmented sixth chords (a fan of Joplin will see them everywhere)
  • heavy right hand syncopation in counterpoint to steady left hand
  • tuneful melodies
  • straightforward forms: binary (simple / rounded), ternary, rondo, etc.
  • tempi typically vary from Andante to Allegro, hardly anything much slower or faster. If faster, you end up in "stride" piano territory, which is not what you are trying to accomplish.

For what it's worth, the very long post with an original rag does not seem very "rag" like - the left hand sort of abysmally plods along while the right hand leaves enough sky time through which Joplin could fly a plane, or write a second opera.

  • I agree. It didn't sound rag. It looks nice but when I actually tried it out in a synthesizer it just played like a very standard piece. It didn't yield a rag feel even though it is a derivative of Joplin. Somewhat surprising. Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 4:59

"So far, the only thing I understood about rags from that video was that rag time seems to occasionally involve desynchronizing the melody from the accompaniment."

Correct. March in the left hand, syncopation in the right. Flounderer posted a good video. I like this one too:

The Wikipedia article on ragtime talks about its form:


What you have so far with your composition is a good start, just keep working on improving the melody line. Maybe change up the rhythm a bit. (Measures three and four as well as the final three measures all have the same rhythm.)

Maybe practice by taking an existing piece and turning it into a rag, like what Ron O'Dell did with "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 5" here...


You can set it up like a march (in 2/4). Use Um-Pa or root then chord for the left hand. But the most important part is to syncopate the rhythm or else it’s just a march.

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