How to Play Ragtime Piano in 5 Easy Steps

Discover How to Play Ragtime Piano in 5 Easy Steps

Popularized by Scott Joplin in the 20th century, ragtime piano playing made a splash in the American music scene. These days most players know it through The Entertainer, but how to play real ragtime is a bit more complicated. But have no fear, we have put together how to play ragtime piano in 5 simple steps.

Ragtime Piano Chords

Before we discuss the techniques and steps that will lead you to be playing ragtime in no time, it’s important to understand the basis of ragtime (and really most piano styles): the chords. Ragtime is more of a swing style and can be considered bluesy or jazzy, however it tends to lack the constant dissonance and grunge of these styles.

Instead, ragtime tends to use more major sounding chords to create a light, airy, and fun sound. The techniques we will discuss in the next section are meant to enhance these chords but will also shed some light on why major chords are preferred to minor or harmonic.

Rather than playing some simple chords, ragtime likes to break them down and play them as separate notes. The melodies are consistently played through octave pairings and then the arpeggios follow these octaves. While this may seem like a lot, how ragtime plays their chords is the reason that virtually any piece can be “rag-ified” by applying certain techniques and improvisations.

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Ragtime Piano Technique

The technique associated with playing ragtime piano is quite unique. The good news is that it is a very diversifiable technique that can be applied to many other types of piano playing as well. The bad news is that it can take some time to master before being able to successfully play ragtime piano.

Step 1: Learn The Jumping Left Hand

One of the base techniques for ragtime piano is the stride lefthand. In ragtime the left hand sets up the metronome for the song and creates the baseline. This is super important as students begin to progress and start improvising so they can find their way back to cohesion.

The stride lefthand means a jumping lefthand. The lefthand in ragtime almost never remains stagnant on a few notes, but more commonly jumps octaves. The most basic stride structure is the left-hand pinky playing the tonic, 5th and 10th notes like the video above shows. However, the stride technique can become more advanced as players advance their skills.

Learn the jumping left hand on the piano

Step 2: Learning Basic Rag Rolls

Rag rolls are the best secret to learning to play ragtime piano. They are a right-hand repeating pattern where the melody is played in octaves and 2 chord tones are added in between. Essentially the melody is always in 4 toned chords that is broken up into the tonic octave and arpeggiated separate inner notes. That may seem confusing, but it will make sense in a bit.

There are three main rules to always follow when playing a rag roll.

  1. The chord is generally arpeggiated from the tonic up and are the 3rd and 5th notes of the chord
  2. The outer notes are played as octaves
  3. The rhythm is always syncopated

As long as you follow these rules, you be able to play ragtime in no time.

The Forward Rag Roll and Basics

The most important rag roll to learn is the forward rag roll. It was a favorite of Scott Joplin and the most common roll within ragtime piano playing. Like explained above, the forward rag roll begins with an octave chord and is followed by arpeggiated inner notes.

For visual learners, it looks like this written on sheet music:

It is important to note this image is only a forward rag roll for a C Major chord, but rag rolls can be used in any key. Also notice how the “punchy” octaves are on beats 1, 2 and the “and” of beat 3. These notes are commonly accented as it is that syncopated rhythm that gives ragtime its iconic sound.

Along with playing rag rolls in other keys, rag rolls can be played in other inversions of the chord. The image above is a tonic chord rag roll; however you can play a first inversion rag roll of C Major that would look like this:

The most important things to remember about rag rolls, and to practice while you learn is that you should be keeping the same pattern regardless of what note you are on. The other super important reminder is that the outside octave notes are your melody. The inside notes make up a chord to support the octave melody you are creating.

With these reminders, a player can make almost any song ragtime as long as they adhere to the rolls and their basics.

The Reverse Rag Roll

The reverse rag roll is exactly what it sounds like. It’s just like the forward rag roll but reversed! The important thing to remember when learning these is that the notes are not flipped. The inner notes still remain ascending the chord, and the octaves come first. 

It’s the rhythm that is flipped. In reverse rag rolls the quarter note octave comes at the end of the measure and the 8th notes are at the beginning. The punches of each octave note played still creates that syncopated rhythm, but the player is simply starting the rhythm at a different spot than in the forward rag roll.

Once again these rolls can be played on any chords as well as inversions. Playing diverse reverse rag rolls can only help enhance a student’s playing ability especially within ragtime where the melody is always played with octaves and embellished with rag rolls.

Step 3: Learning More Advanced Rag Rolls

Once you have the basic rag rolls nailed down and can play them effortlessly throughout a song, it’s time to move on to more advanced rolls.

The Combined Rag Roll

By combining the forward and reverse rag rolls, students can learn to play the combined rag roll. It’s a fancier roll to play when playing ragtime piano and is definitely a need-to-know skill. The combined rag roll is simply playing a forward rag roll and the immediately playing a reverse rag roll after.

Take a close look at the image above. There are some key points and differences that students need to be aware of when playing the combined rag roll. The first point is the measure bar. It is separating the forward and reverse rag roll, but the rhythm and playing should be continuous. No stopping at the bar.

It is a longer roll than either of the forward or reverse rag rolls. This imply means that students need to ensure the playing is continuous and each note is equal. With the exception of the quarter notes, each 8th note should have the same value in terms of dynamics and length.

The combined rag roll is really meant to create some tension and suspense within the rag music. It’s the same few notes repeatedly because by the end the audience will be waiting for the drop of something new to continue the melody. Keep that in mind as you play!

The Triplet Rag Roll

These are one of the harder rag rolls to learn simply because triplets are tough. When players are going to try and implement the triplet rag roll into a song it can create some out-of-time playing that can be hard to get back on track. It is much easier to rag-up a song with triplet rag rolls if it is already in a bluesy or swing style.

Let’s check out the triplet rag roll:

Once again there are a few important things to notice when looking and practicing this triplet rag roll. The first being that this roll lasts for 2 beats before repeating itself. The basic rag rolls take up the whole measure, so this one goes a little faster.

The other important aspect is the octave is placed within the roll. The first note is NOT an octave chord, but rather you are playing a 5th, from E to C in this case. The octave C is the last quarter note after playing the arpeggio.

These are some of the things that make the triplet rag roll so hard to learn. It breaks the patterns of the basic rag rolls but can add some real spice to the music. Note also though that it is still breaking down the major tonic chord and playing the tonic, 3rd and 5th notes. Again, these can be played with all chords and inversions.

Step 4: The Ornamentations

Ornamentations are similar to the next step of learning how to improvise, but they are written out and meant to fill the space between rag rolls. However, knowing when to use them is up to the player to find the best spots to enhance the music.

Ornamentations look like this: 

Ornaments are meant to be pleasing to the ear because of the resolved tension within the playing. In the case of a C major chord ornamentation, the tension is created through the dissonance of the D# and A, but immediately resolved when sliding to the E and G third.

It is then repeated with slightly different notes, but the resolution remains. Just like rag rolls these can be played on any chord as long as the first tension is resolved by the tonic third. This is considered a more advanced technique to learn how to play ragtime piano but can really spice up the music if played correctly.

Step 5: Learn to Add Yourself

The whole point of ragtime is to learn how the composer intended for the music to be played and then play it how you want. Adding your own spice and flare is at the heart of learning to play ragtime piano. The written music is meant to be a guide and inspiration rather than a strict script on what to play.

While improvisation was very rare in ragtime, enhancing the music through unwritten techniques and rhythms is at the heart and soul of ragtime. The music is meant to enhance a student’s creativity as well as force them to understand the music rather than simply playing the notes on the page. This is a skill that will serve all piano players well throughout their piano playing career, but definitely during their ragtime learnings and playing.

Types of Additions

Repeat signs: these mean that you play the exact same thing over again, and especially for an engaging and fun style like ragtime playing the same thing is boring. This is why the repeat sign ALWAYS means adding ornamentation and improvisation to spice things up.

Octave Shifts: usually notated by the 8va signal, the octave shift up or down is a great sign to begin improvisation. Especially in ragtime piano playing the octave shift repeats something played earlier and thus is a great time to add your own style. Not to mention an octave shift itself is an improvisation.

Altering Syncopation: This is one of the more advanced improvisation techniques and needs to be approached carefully. Essentially the player shifts the first note of the syncopated rhythm over by a 16th note and can create some variety in the very repetitive ragtime style. This thing to be careful of is sometimes this makes the straight 8th note rhythms sound more march-like than ragtime, but if pulled off correctly it’s a great little quirk to add.

Fill Notes and Chords: adding in fill notes and chords is one of the most common forms of improvisation even outside of ragtime. They are meant to “fatten up” any piece where things may be a little boring or blank. However, it is important to remember that sometimes less is more when adding fillers because too many may make the piece sound messy.

Grace Notes and Smashes: The smash in particular adds some real flare to the piece. It is simply a glissando either up or down the keyboard to a particular melodic note. They are easy to put in, but again remember that sometimes less is more and when played, the smashes want to be the most effective in enhancing the piece.

Ragtime Exercises

Obviously just reading this article is not going to make you a ragtime piano playing expert. It is time to start practicing some of the techniques and sounds that we have discussed and explained.

Don’t worry, we have compiled a list of some great exercises meant specifically to begin developing ragtime playing habits.

Rag Roll Exercises

There are quite a few exercises to help develop the skill of quick and nice sounding rag rolls. But before we get into the specifics it’s important to remember that simple repetition of the basic rag rolls is the best way to get it into your fingers. Once you can play them effortlessly, that’s when it’s time to start applying them to music and these exercises.

The book School of Ragtime was written by Scott Joplin to help players understand and learn ragtime piano. It has all of the amazing exercises that a ragtime piano player could hope for, as well as goes into depth on what ragtime is and the heart and soul that makes it.

However, for those looking for some quicker exercises to simply get started, here are a few ideas.

Exercise 1: Blocking

Blocking is a very well known practicing technique for all piano players. It is a way to help scary music seem not so scary by blocking the broken up chords into a single chord to play. This is especially helpful in ragtime where chords are consistently broken up.

Players can do this with either the right hand rag rolls or the left hand jumps. It creates a way for players to be able to aim those jumps at the right notes the first time. Once players understand that jumps are simply chords, the music becomes mentally simpler and easier to coordinate with the hands.

Learn How to Play Ragtime Piano

Exercise 2: Listen to Ragtime Regularly

This is not a piano exercise and may seem like a weird way of building up ragtime skills. However, listening to ragtime is a great way to really internalize what ragtime is supposed to sound like. It creates a base for you to compare your own music against and see how you can improve.

In reality, when trying to learn any style of piano for the first time players should always begin by listening to the professional players often. Then, especially for styles like ragtime, it’s always important to put your own spin on it and create your style of ragtime. That’s what makes it so special.

Exercise 3: Start Playing some Songs

This can honestly be the hardest exercise to implement in playing. Especially with ragtime’s multiple notations that may not be familiar, approaching that sheet music can be scary. But the best way to learn how to play ragtime piano is to do it, so take out the sheet music and get to it!

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