Ragtime 101 (With Scott Bradlee of Postmodern Jukebox)

Scott Bradlee  /  Styles  /  Apr 26, 2024

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Want to sound like a saloon player in the 1890s? Then you’ve got to learn how to play ragtime piano!

This jaunty, vintage style of music is special. Ragtime was almost exclusively designed for piano. And while it isn’t exactly mainstream music today, ragtime an ancestor of jazz, which is still very popular. And jazz itself is an ancestor of contemporary styles like blues, rock, soul, and R&B.

So hop back in time and get ready to discover one of piano’s best hidden gems.

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What is ragtime piano?

Ragtime is an American style of music that was popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

According to the U.S. Library of Congress, ragtime can be defined in myriad ways but most of its practitioners agree with this definition:

Ragtime — A genre of musical composition for the piano, generally in duple meter and containing a highly syncopated treble lead over a rhythmically steady bass. A ragtime composition is usually composed [of] three or four contrasting sections or strains, each one being 16 or 32 measures in length.

U.S. Library of Congress

Here’s what some of those words mean:

  • Duple meter: two beats in a measure, such as 2/4 or 2/2
  • Syncopation: when beats don’t line up exactly—also described as “offbeat” or “displaced” beats
  • Strain: a section of a song with a unique theme

Ragtime’s characteristics mostly came from self-taught traveling musicians in the South, especially around Missouri. It’s also closely associated with the Black community and was enjoyed by Europeans when its popularity spread across the Atlantic.

In this lesson, Scott Bradlee of Postmodern Jukebox will give you a rundown of three basic ragtime elements: stride, syncopation, and how to play the right hand melody.

About Scott Bradlee

Scott Bradlee is a prolific pianist, composer, and arranger celebrated for his boundary-pushing interpretations of contemporary music. With Postmodern Jukebox, Bradlee has redefined the concept of cover songs, transforming chart-toppers into vintage-inspired masterpieces that blend jazz, swing, and other classic genres. His ingenious arrangements and commitment to musical authenticity have garnered a massive online following, making Postmodern Jukebox a global sensation and solidifying Bradlee’s status as a visionary in the modern music landscape.

> Interview With Scott Bradlee

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How to Play Ragtime Piano


Stride is a left hand pattern that roughly boils down to low-high, low-high. You break a chord into its bass note (low) and upper notes (high).

Using a C major chord as an example, Scott plays the root and fifth as bass notes in octaves. Then he plays the C major chord in second inversion on top.

You can think of stride as a marching band. The low notes imitate instruments like tuba and bass drum, while the high notes imitate the banjo and snare drum. By playing stride piano, you’re essentially your own rhythm section!

You can make stride easier by playing everything closer together, or playing single bass notes instead of octaves.

It’s important to stress that stride piano is not easy. It’s a lot of leaping around and it takes practice and precision. But don’t be discouraged. Be patient, start slow, and use a metronome.

Why learn stride? The stride pattern is a crucial element of the ragtime sound, but it can also be found in many jazz piano arrangements. There are also similar patterns in classical piano — Chopin’s waltzes, for example, require similar left hand finesse. So, while it’s tricky, mastering the stride “leap” is well worth your time!


“Syncopation is just a very fancy word that means playing between the beats,” Scott explains. It’s a key component of ragtime and what gives the style its unique flavor.

This is how “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” looks like without syncopation:

And this is how it looks like syncopated:

So, experiment with the melody you’re playing with. See if you can play a note half a beat earlier or later. And use that steady, left-hand stride as a metronome.

Right Hand Melody

The right hand melody is said to sound “ragged,” which is where the word “ragtime” comes from!

Typical ragtime right hand patterns feel like a guitar or banjo. Broken down, they’re essentially broken chords. You outline a chord with an octave, then play the chord tones “inside” that octave.

Here’s an example of this with a C major triad in 2nd inversion:

You can find this pattern in classic ragtime songs like those by Scott Joplin.

Sound more ragtime-y: Other techniques Scott Bradlee uses include tremolos, grace notes, slips and slides, and blues scales.

Ragtime Composers

Ragtime composers may not be as well-known as Mozart and Beethoven, but their influence on popular music is undeniable. Here are the “Big 3” ragtime composers:

Scott Joplin

Perhaps the only ragtime composer with a household name, Scott Joplin wrote “The Entertainer”—more popularly known as The Ice Cream Truck Song. He also wrote one opera, Treemonisha, which didn’t premiere in full until after his death during the ragtime revival of the 1970s.

> “The Entertainer” Complete Piano Tutorial

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Joseph Lamb

Joseph Lamb was somewhat of a ragtime outlier in that he was Irish Catholic and, save for brief stints, didn’t work as a full-time musician. Nevertheless, he impressed Scott Joplin with his piano chops so much that Joplin convinced The Stark Company to publish Lamb’s rags.

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James Scott

(Yup, seems like a lot of ragtimers were named Scott!) James Scott was also “discovered” by Scott Joplin who, again, got him published by The Stark Company. Scott also worked as a dance accompanist and silent film accompanist before the advent of the “talkies.” His music was generally more complex.

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Ragtime Songs

“The Entertainer” is the most famous rag of all time, but it’s hardly alone. Check out these out popular rags:

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Charmaine Li is a Vancouver writer who has played piano for over 20 years. She holds an Associate diploma (ARCT) from the Royal Conservatory of Music and loves writing about the ways in which music—and music learning—affects the human experience. Charmaine manages The Note. Learn more about Charmaine here.

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