Unleashing Your Inner Scott Joplin: A Guide on How to Play Ragtime Piano

Ragtime piano is a genre that dates bakc to the late 1800s and early 1900s, characterized by its syncopated rhythm and unique style. A precursor to jazz music, ragtime was popularized by composers such as Scott Joplin, James Scott, and Joseph Lamb. In this article, we’ll explore how to play ragtime piano, discussing its characteristics, essential techniques, and providing tips for beginners. Plus, we’ll cover some extra topics that will benifit your journey in mastering ragtime piano.

Understanding Ragtime Music

Before diving into the techniques of playing ragtime piano, it’s crucial to understand its characteristics and structure. Here are some key aspects of ragtime music:

  1. Syncopation: Ragtime is known for its syncopated rhythms, meaning that the emphasis is on the off-beats. This creates a lively, bouncy feel that’s distintctive of the genre.
  2. Left-Hand Patterns: In ragtime music, the left hand typically plays a steady bass pattern, often consisting of alternating bass notes and chords. This provides a solid foundation for the syncopated melody in the right hand.
  3. Melody: The right hand plays a syncopated melody, often featuring chromaticism and embellishments. The melody is generally more intricate than the left-hand accompaniment.
  4. Form: Ragtime pieces are typically composed in a sectional form, with multiple themes or “strains” that are repeated in a specific pattern (e.g., AABBACCDD).

Essential Ragtime Techniques

To play ragtime piano effectively, you’ll need to master a few specific techniques:

  1. Syncopation: As mentioned earlier, syncopation is a key characteristic of ragtime music. Practice playing off-beat rhythms in your right hand while maintaining a steady left-hand accompaniment.
  2. b. Finger Independence: Ragtime piano requires a high degree of finger independence, especially in the right hand. Practice exercises that focus on developing independence between your fingers, such as Hanon exercises or five-finger patterns.
  3. c. Octave and Chord Jumps: In ragtime, the left hand often jumps between bass notes and chords, sometimes spanning large intervals. Practice these jumps to develop accuracy and speed in your left hand.

Tips for Learning Ragtime Piano

  1. Start with simpler pieces: Before tackling more complex ragtime compositions like Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” or “The Entertainer,” start with simpler pieces to familiarize yourself with the style and techniques. Some easier ragtime pieces to consider are Joplin’s “Weeping Willow” or “Peacherine Rag.”
  2. Use a metronome: A metronome can be an invaluable tool when learning ragtime piano. Start by practicing at a slow tempo, gradually increasing the speed as you become more comfortable with the piece.
  3. Listen to ragtime music: Immerse yourself in the genre by listening to ragtime recordings and performances. This will help you develop an ear for the style and improve your overall musicality.
  4. Take it one hand at a time: When learning a new ragtime piece, practice each hand separately before combining them. This will help you master the syncopation and left-hand patterns more effectively.

Extra Topics to Benefit Your Ragtime Piano Journey

a. History of Ragtime: Understanding the historical context of ragtime music can provide valuable insight into the genre. Learn about the key composers, such as Scott Joplin, and their contributions to the development of ragtime music.

b. Ragtime Piano Resources:There are numerous resources available to help you learn ragtime piano, including sheet music, instructional books, and online tutorials. Some popular resources include:

  • “The Joy of Ragtime” by Denes Agay: This book features a collection of ragtime pieces and arrangements, suitable for intermediate-level pianists.
  • “Ragtime Rediscoveries” by Trebor Jay Tichenor: This book contains lesser-known ragtime pieces, offering a unique opportunity to explore the genre beyond its most famous compositions.
  • YouTube tutorials: Channels such as RagtimeDorianHenry and Bill Edwards offer video tutorials and performances of ragtime pieces, providing valuable insights into the style and techniques.

c. Transcription and Analysis: Transcribing ragtime piano pieces can help you understand the intricacies of the genre and improve your overall musicianship. As you transcribe, analyze the structure, harmonies, and rhythms of the music to deepen your understanding of ragtime composition.

d. Ragtime Piano Community: Connect with other ragtime piano enthusiasts, either online or in person, to share your experiences, learn from others, and immerse yourself in the world of ragtime. Consider joining online forums, attending ragtime festivals, or participating in local piano clubs.


Ragtime piano is a captivating and distinctive genre that has charmed audiences for well over a century. By understanding its characteristics, mastering essential techniques, and exploring additional resources, you can immerse yourself in the world of ragtime and unleash your inner Scott Joplin. With practice, patience, and passion, you’ll soon be playing ragtime piano like a pro, bringing joy to both yourself and your listeners.

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