First a general question: I'm arranging a ragtime piece and would like to know if you generally play rags with swing in the melody or not?

In my case I'll go with swing anyways, because in this piece it sounds a lot better with swing than without, but therefore I have another question.

How would you notate swing for the melody (top staff) only?

In ragtime you have your 'steady bass' to keep the rhythm on the beats. In one walking bass line I used 16th notes, which would also be played swing then if notated, but to maintain the steady bass, I don't want them to be played with swing.

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  • 4
    It might not be the answer you are looking for, but you could put swing notation at the top as usual and then put a straight eighths throughout direction or something like that above the bass clef. Commented May 22, 2019 at 14:47
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    Oh, obviously you would want to put straight sixteenths. I wasn’t paying attention. Commented May 22, 2019 at 15:54
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    @ToddWilcox Yeah no problem... maybe a bit confusing of me to not show the 2/4 time signature :D So you would write 'straight sixteenths throughout' as text at the beginning of the score above the bass clef?
    – Andy
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 16:02
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    There were quite a few recordings in the late '50s/ early '60s, notably some by Elvis, that had this effect. Fours and eights rather than sixteens, though, and 4/4 rather than 2/4.
    – Tim
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 16:05
  • @ToddWilcox I think that is the answer. Care to make an official one?
    – Richard
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 18:50

2 Answers 2


I think ragtime is generally more effective not swung. Several 'horse's mouth' examples here. Take your pick! Joplin seemed to have :-)


So if that's what you want, mark the upper stave 'Swing 16s' and the lower 'straight 16s' Don't use that horrible Metric Modulation notation. For a start Swing isn't triplets.

  • The page you linked to mentions that 6 of the 7 piano rolls were edited and do not actually reflect Joplin's playing style, and the seventh was made shortly before his death, when he was already quite ill. Not all that straight from the horse's mouth, I would argue. Commented Jun 22, 2019 at 23:12
  • Section 5 of the critique is interesting. Did the sprocket pitch really infulence resolution? He seems to think the roll progressed in a series of tiny jerks rather than continuously. Similar to the false understanding some people have about sample rates - they don't understand that the output waveform ISN'T stepped. Anyway, I like the way ragtime sounds un-swung.
    – Laurence
    Commented Jun 23, 2019 at 11:25
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    Interesting thought that the whole tradition of un-swung ragtime might stem from a pedantic piano-roll cutter! I still like the more stilted 'straight' rhythms though.
    – Laurence
    Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 12:18

Bernstein notated fast 6/8 to make it perfectly clear. See West side stories opening...Its not easy to read though and looks unfamiliar.

You give the correct clue in your header, that the 16th should be swung. The experienced player will know that the pulse (your eigth notes) must be steady and even flowing. In my view it is sufficient for professional notation as you show it here...

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