I enjoy improvising piano in what I call (perhaps incorrectly) a "honky-tonk" or "ragtime" style, usually involving a steady stride or two-step in the left hand, and playing over that with lots of syncopation in the right hand. Harmony usually consists of majors and sevenths.

I am always impressed when I hear the introduction of other chords, fleetingly introduced (perhaps in a chromatic manner); they seem to be slipped in while transitioning from I to IV chords for example. I am assuming they are augmented or diminished chords, but I have never understood the theory of which ones to use and where.

Is there a systematic way of thinking about this, or is it - just - what sounds great?

EDIT: Here is the only quick example I could think of, off the top of my head. (Can you tell I have young kids -- please excuse the example). See middle of the piano solo at exactly 2:15 there is a chromatic bit. What is going on there, harmonically? And in general what harmonic principles is the piano player using throughout (e.g. at 1:41, and throughout piano solo 1:57 to 2:18).

  • This Wikipedia page, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classic_rag has the 'rules' for classic ragtime. Is that what you're looking for?
    – Luke_0
    Mar 11, 2012 at 17:00
  • @Luke this is very interesting, thanks. But I'd like to know more about harmony and how to treat this in an improvisational context. Not necessarily ragtime, but in general for any piano style of the pre-Jazz era. Mar 11, 2012 at 17:18
  • One thing I think is cool regarding honky tonk or ragtime is that I think of a setting where the piano is played at some non-fancy bar or diner as background music where the piano is slightly off-tune. This is something that makes it a bit charming, and adds to the "honky tonk feeling".
    – awe
    Mar 14, 2012 at 7:57

6 Answers 6


If there are rules, they are pretty much the same as for popular music of the early 20th century. Some rags have simple progressions; some use more complex progressions. As with jazz improvising, "substitution" chords can be used, like ii-V7-I in place of IV-V7-I. Ninth chords and beyond are rare. Joplin's "Euphonic Sounds" and "Antoinette" are extreme in their progressions, and "Wall Street Rag" is unusual in using "crazy chords". Joplin was pushing the envelope, or more likely writing what he considered classical piano intermezzos.

One interesting pattern that Perfessor Bill Edwards pointed out to me: The first strain of a rag usually starts on a I chord; the second strain often starts with V-I, and the last strain often starts IV-I.


Scott Joplin, in his School of Ragtime, insists that ragtime should always be played in a strict, even time; straight eights. Ragtime does not swing, nor does it rock, instead it ripples.

So if you're swinging the eighth-notes, then "honky-tonk" is probably as good a term as any. If the left hand were busier, it might be Boogie-woogie.

To investigate the harmonic aspects, the chords or changes, of this genre (whatever we choose to call it), you should get a "Real Book". [ Are we allowed to talk about these openly, yet? Nobody gonna sue nobody? ]
While the rhythms vary for all these related styles the harmony in all of them is based on Blues. The chords on the page for any song marked "blues" is going to ba a variation on the "standard" blues pattern

 I - - - | IV - - - | I - - - | - - - - |
IV - - - |  - - - - | I - - - | - - - - |
 V - - - | IV - - - | I - - - | V - - - ||

) and any recording you may find of the song is likely to vary further still.

There are certain "events" in the progression that stand out. The movement to the IV chord feels (to me at least) like a "pulling away". It's only the Is and Vs where you can "sit a spell". But the I chord in bars 7 and 8 is not "comfortable". It's likely trying to listen to a lecture when you really need to pee. And the V chord in bar 12 "knows it's going home". The chordal variations change the character of these events, the mood of the situation.

  • Appreciate your clarification of the genre definition. I will now not call this stuff ragtime, as I am certainly swinging it, and definitely not rippling (cool LaTeX by the way) Mar 14, 2012 at 1:08

When talking about note, I think it is called "leading note" or "leading tone". Look at this article in Wikipedia on leading tone.

EDIT: When talking about chords (which seems to be the correct one for your question), I think you were referring to the Tritone Substitution Chords. Tritone Substitution, is basically replacing the V in ii - V - I progression for example, with the note tritone away from the original. from V - VI is one tone. V - VII is two tone, from VII to IIb (two flat) is tritone distance.

Let's grab an example: If you play a song in C, the basic ii - V - I progression is Dm - G7 - C, or its variants, Dm7 - G7 - CM7, or Dm9 - G11 - CM9, etc. If you are doing tritone substitution, you will play: Dm - Db - C, or most of the time Jazz players will translate this to Db7 (D flat seventh), Dm7 - Db7 - CM7.

You can easily recognize this tritone substitution in classic Bossanova like "Garota de Ipanema" (Girls from Ipanema).

In the Bananaphone song above, my ear thinks the progression is II - V7 - II - V7 - I, with tritone substitution. So the V7 was replaced by IIb7. The progression goes II - IIb7 - II - IIb7 - I. In C you'd play D7 - Db7 - D7 - Db7 - C.


If you're hearing a diminished chord, it's probably a ii or vii chord. The vii chord is pretty rare, but the ii can function as a secondary dominant, resolving to a IV or V which then of course goes to I.

I don't know too much about ragtime, so take this with a grain of salt.


Look at your dominant chords (motion by fifths, for example D7 > Gmaj, E7 > A) regardless of what key you're in. For example, say you're in the key of C, and you want to "arrive" at a Gmaj chord, you may insert a D7 in front of it. Or you want to "arrive" at a Em chord, you may insert a B7 in front of it, even though these D7 and B7 chord are not actually in the key of C, but they do function as dominant chords, and they do give that chromatic approach tone.

Dimished chords actually have a similiar function. A diminished chord is a substitute for a dom7b9 (dominant 7th with a flat 9) and they are often used where the two upper or two lower notes of the chord resolve up or down a half step to the next chord.


I heard this piano go to the IV chord, and then raise the root note up a half step. This is rather common in this kind of music, and It has a very interesting sound. The chromatic part, as far as I can tell, Is A type of V chord turnaround. You can play it by playing V, V, VI VIIb VII.

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