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Article Classic Rag

Image: Cover of Maple Leaf Rag
Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin (John Stark & Son, c1899). Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Ragtime music adapted to the unique style and invention of each composer and musician. Certain rags, however, particularly those by Scott Joplin and the composers who published with John Stark & Son, can be categorized as "classic." These instrumental rags fit a certain musical structure.

The "classic" piano rag has three or four sections, each featuring a different 16-measure musical theme, or melody. In turn, these equal sections are divided into four lines of four measures each. Once a theme is played through, it is generally repeated immediately; in certain cases, it reappears later in the piece.

Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" serves as a good example of this "classic" form. The first 16-bar section, which can be labeled Theme A, is played once through and then repeated. The second ending is changed slightly in order to lead smoothly into the next section:

Listen to Theme A audio icon

The next part, Theme B, also is played through twice:

Listen to Theme B audio icon

Next follows a single reprise of Theme A:

Listen to reprise of Theme A audio icon

The next section, Theme C, is designated as a Trio. This term goes back to instrumental music of the 18th century. At the end of a Minuet movement, for example, certain instruments of the entire ensemble would temporarily drop out, allowing for a new section with a three-part or "trio" texture. This musical reference within a rag enhances its claim to the term "classic." Theme C also is played through twice; its second ending leads directly into Theme D:

Listen to Theme C audio icon

Finally, Theme D completes the rag. It, too, is repeated, but its second ending is a firm chord that clearly signals the piece is over.

Listen to Theme D audio icon

A thematic diagram of Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" looks like this:

John Stark was particularly proud of the rags that his firm published. One of his advertisements read: "Why are the Stark Music Co's Rags called Classic? This is the reason: They are intellectual musical thought grounded in the emotional principle of humanity. They are the musical soul-thought of the human race."

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  • Classic Rag


  • -  Ragtime music -- History and criticism
  • -  Popular Songs of the Day
  • -  Songs and Music
  • -  Progressive Era to New Era (1900-1929)
  • -  Articles

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