Ragtime music was extremely popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This American jazz style of music full of syncopated rhythms and upbeat tempos took the world by storm. Not coincidentally, the piano that was now in mass production was finding its way into pubs, restaurants, and many homes as the focal point of the daily entertainment. Pianist and composer Scott Joplin was the most celebrated composer of ragtime music, and his famous “Maple Leaf Rag” would sell over a million copies.
You create the distinctive sound of ragtime piano by a very steady left hand bass accompaniment contrasted with syncopated rhythms in the right hand melody. Although ragtime music can be challenging for the beginner, it is possible to simplify the left hand and still get the basic feel of the music. The pattern that typifies the ragtime bass is a variation of the chord bass where the chords are interspersed with single bass notes. There is a bit of jumping back and forth as the pinky plays a single bass note, followed by a two- or three-note chord. Often you will need to lift your entire left hand from the piano to get into position to play the chord.
FIGURE 14-3: “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin (1867–1917)
The trick to playing ragtime well is to play with a perfectly steady left hand with no hesitation between the jumps. Without the even tempo and rhythm of the left hand establishing a timing reference, the syncopation of the right hand melody is lost. In order to do this, you may have to take the tempo very slowly at first. Even after you have mastered this accompaniment, resist the temptation to play ragtime at a very rapid tempo. The syncopation between the left and right hand provides the flavor of ragtime music, not a fast tempo. Scott Joplin himself would write on many of his published works that “ragtime should never be played fast.”