What Is Ragtime, Stride and Novelty Piano?

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 A Little History

 Ragtime is probably the first pure American popular musical genre. It is characterized by a heavily syncopated melody over a regularly accented bass. Like any musical style, Ragtime had its roots in a broad range of earlier music and experience, including traveling minstrel-shows, plantation songs, brass bands, cakewalks and other music with strong African-American influences - even the parodies of white musicians imitating black musical forms.

 Ragtime was originally created by itinerant professional performers in the saloons and brothels of the post civil-war years. The artists rarely sold their work, making enough money to live well by way of the tips that accompanied their performances in bars and on stage.

 Ragtime is an extremely sophisticated genre that requires no small amount of technical skill. Ragtime evolved as a style through the years as piano players began to compete with each other to see who could play these exuberant songs in the most RAGGED or syncopated manner. It was eventually widely distributed in the form of both piano rolls and printed music. The period when Ragtime was popular extended from about 1900 until the beginning of World War I and this was known as the "Golden Age of Ragitme"

 During this period Ragtime reached what is known as its classic form under the leadership of the composer known today as the King Of Ragtime Writers, Scott Joplin. Joplin established a structure and form for ragtime compositions to which the majority of the composers of the time adhered. This structure comprises four 16-bar strains or themes. These four strains (Labeled A, B, C, and D) are played in this sequence- AABBACCDD. That is, the first strain (A) is played and repeated, followed by the B strain and its repeat. Then the A strain is reprised once, followed by the C, repeated C, D, and repeated D strains.

 Some Examples

 Basic Ragtime could be defined as a left hand bass part consisting of octaves and chords played on the beat and a right hand melody part which contains several notes which were played between the beats. This is called syncopation. To illustrate, let's take a simple melody, "Mary Had A Little Lamb", and see how it would be played in ragtime.

First let's LISTEN to the basic melody and chords.

Now let's give it a ragtime bass. LISTEN
Notice how the bass consists of alternating octaves and chords. The octaves are played on the downbeats and the chords on the upbeats.

 Let's add the melody now. LISTEN
It's still not ragtime yet because the melody is not syncopated or played between the beats.

So now lets RAG (syncopate) the melody. LISTEN

 Now that's what ragtime is all about.

 Want to know more? Here are some links to other Ragtime References:
Northwestern University's Ragtime Reference Page
The Ragtimer's Page Ragtime FAQ

 Ok, so now I understand Ragtime. What's this Stride Piano thing?

 Stride piano is nothing more than an evolution of ragtime. James P. Johnson was the prime innovator of stride piano. He embellished basic ragtime syncopation , beginning with a general increase in tempo. As a side note, Scott Joplin routinely prefaced many of his compositions with the advisory - "Never play ragtime fast". Stride is characteristically faster than ragtime.

Secondly, he substituted 10ths in the bass instead of octaves. What are 10th's?
First LISTEN to these single bass notes.
Now LISTEN to them played as octaves.
And now LISTEN to them played as 10ths. Aren't the 10th's more melodious?

He then moved some of the right hand syncopation into the left hand and played some of the bass notes off beat. This was mainly accomplished by rolling the 10th's. LISTEN to this example of rolled 10th's.

The left hand bass accompaniment was often embellished with "back beats": rhythmic displacements of the regular left hand alternation of bass (octaves or 10ths) on the downbeats and chords on the upbeats, with fancy groupings of bass and chords which added melodic interest. LISTEN to James P. Johnson using back beats to liven up the bass in this strain of his "Carolina Shout".

 Then he gave everything a swing rhythm. What's that? It's when a group of notes (usually the melody) which are written as evenly spaced notes are played in a long-short-long-short-long-short rhythm. Here's an example: LISTEN to these evenly spaced notes. Now LISTEN to the same notes played with a swing rhythm.

 To top it all off he embellished his music with fanciful improvisations called tricks or licks.
Let's LISTEN to James P. Johnson's "Snowy Mornin' Blues" which, except for its slow tempo, is a quintessential example of Stride Piano.

I have interrupted the piece part way through to explain that what you will hear next is one the finest examples of syncopation and back beats you will ever hear in stride piano. LISTEN as we continue with James P. Johnson's "Snowy Mornin' Blues" and listen carefully to the interplay of the rolled 10ths and back beats with the right hand melody. It's very complicated rhythmically, but you never lose track of the beat.

And that, my friend is STRIDE piano!

 Want to learn more about stride piano? Look at these sites:
The Jazz Central Station History Of Jazz page
The Red Hot Jazz Archive
Biography of James P. Johnson

 You will see some "Novelty Piano" pieces in my library. What is that?

 Novelty Piano developed as a natural evolution of ragtime during the 1920's. Zez Confrey was the king of the Novelty Piano composer/pianists. Others were also quite proficient in the genre. Artists such as Louis Alter, Roy Bargey, Rube Bloom, Billy Mayerl, Ralph Rainger, Arthur Schutt, and even George Gershwin were expert Piano Novelty composers. Although the idiom has become obscure in current times there are contemporary composers who are writing excellent Novelty Piano pieces. I call your attention to the works of Robin Frost and others which are found here in the Library.

 According to David Jasen & Trebor Tichenor in Rags & Ragtime, a Musical History, "Novelty piano ragtime was a product of American pianists with classical music training who originally arranged and performed popular songs on piano rolls. The idea was developed from those hand-played piano roll artists who were ordered to make full, rich arrangements so the player roll customers felt they had gotten their money's worth. Using their piano roll tricks, they put together an extremely complex rhythmic and harmonic series of progressions which demanded the greatest technical skill to perform... The distinctive sound of the Novelty rag is a combination of the influence of the French Impressionists - Claude Debussey and Maurice Ravel - with contrasting rhythms as used by the roll arrangers. Chromaticism is at the heart of the Novelty tradition... Probably the most striking hallmark of Novelty writing is the use of consecutive fourths in the melody voicing."

 Most music scholars now agree (including Jasen & Tichenor) that it is incorrect to refer to Novelty Piano music as Novelty Ragtime. It is a genre unto itself.

 To help you more easily understand Jasen & Tichenor's explanation of Novelty Piano, I have placed some musical examples below which should help you appreciate and recognize Novelty Piano music.

 What is Chromaticism? LISTENto this chromatic phrase. Notice how each chord is just 1 tone below the previous one. That's called chromatic.

Now LISTEN to these same chords as they are used in the introduction of Arthur Schutt's "Bluin' The Black Keys".

 So what about this consecutive fourths thing? LISTEN to this series of chords. They are consecutive fourths. Now LISTEN to how Schutt uses them in the melody of this excerpt from "Bluin' The Black Keys"

 Now LISTEN and enjoy the entire composition - "Bluin' the Black Keys" by Arthur Schutt - A perfect example of Novelty Piano. Listen to the complicated rhythms, the chromatics and the fourths. They are all there, just as Jasen & Tichenor described.

 For further listening I refer you to the following pieces in my Library:
"Eccentric Formalism Rag" -Frost
"Three Sheets in the Ocean, One Foot in the Sunset, & You" -Frost
"Rolling Avocado" -Frost
"Occident Express" -Frost
"Space Shuffle -Frost"
"Pianogram" -Rainger

Other related links you should look at:
Biography & discography of Zez Confrey

Want more? Be sure to listen to or download all The Ragtime, Novelty
and Stride Piano music in my MIDI Libraries by visiting the Home Page!

Thanks to the following who made contributions to this page:
Weber Piano Company, Warren Trachtman, Irwin Schwartz

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© 1997, 1999 John E. Roache. The MIDI performances available at this site are all performance copyright 1995-1999 by John E. Roache and may NOT be used for any commercial use whatsoever without permission. The MIDI sequences may be freely distributed for non-commercial use only in their compressed .ZIP form with all attached text files.

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