Composition is a tricky topic since so much of it is subjective. Why did I even attempt tackling it? Over the years I had received increasingly larger numbers of requests for composition tips, as well as compositions to evaluate, and nearly all of them seemed to ask for some kind of guide to make things easier. Even as an award-winning composer, for which I am grateful, I can't exactly ease the process of ragtime composition. However, I have the experience in the genre to at least provide some guidelines to follow or things to avoid, while leaving lots of room for personal choice and potentially improving the end result. A caveat, though: Even though I always try to present a collective point of view, some of what is expressed in here is a matter of personal taste or opinion, either mine or members of the ragtime community that I know fairly well. The rest of the content is based on common sense or known fact. It is sometimes hard to separate the two, but where I can I do. Mine is only one voice in a sea of many valid opinions on ragtime composition, or composition in general, so should be used only as intended - as a general guide for getting started and avoiding certain pitfalls. I urge you to also ask other composers for their points of view as well, and to look to both modern and vintage compositions that appeal to you as a style template as well. The collective information is more likely to result in personal success than just trying to mete out something from scratch, but more detail is contained below.
Have you ever looked under the hood
of a late model car when it breaks down and try to figure out what part of the on-board computer went wrong, (as opposed to the old days [depending on your age] when you just put clothes pins on the fuel lines, banged on the air filter, tweaked the spark plug wires, or put gum on the little spritz of water coming from the radiator, before continuing on your way)? How about working an iPad or tablet out of the box, or even configuring a Blu-Ray player/recorder or a computer system, all without reading the directions? It works out sometimes if you have some prior knowledge about what you are doing. However, if you are unskilled or unschooled in the topic you are undertaking, it is hard to expect top-grade results without that knowledge. The same applies to doctors, lawyers, even Indian chiefs and ragtime composers. The more you know about what you are doing, the better the end result will be. That is the basis of this guide.
While one might argue that the place to start is with an idea for a composition, that idea still needs to be defined, refined and expanded on in some manner. Is it a title? Is it a melodic snippet? Is it a concept or shape? Even at that, another person might argue that a better launching pad is a background in the music that they are composing. Yet another could postulate that knowledge of the workings of music in general as well as basic composition skills are necessary. All of these are valid. We will take it a step further here and argue that experience in many different forms of music, basic knowledge of the elements of harmony and theory, the ability to notate or exercise some proficiency in notation software, and a broad knowledge of ragtime in general are all good criteria to have when attempting to compose. While varying degrees of each may have little impact on the end product, removal of any of them could potentially have a great deal of difference.
Do these criteria apply just to ragtime composition? Yes and no. For example, let's take jazz. Modern jazz is sometimes absolutely free form in all planes, including harmonic, melodic rhythmic and metric. However, even structured jazz in most cases is much less restrictive than ragtime. It is often more about the chord progression or the rhythmic patterns than about melody, even though the latter is important as the starting point. But modern jazz is also one basic theme or idea that is expanded upon in variations, whether they are applied to the progressions, melodic lines, or through the use of multiple timbres. Much of what is required, or equally not required for jazz composition, would either leave a void in rag composition or simply not apply at all. The same is true for song composition, whether it is rock, rap or rhythm and blues. Writing a song is also very different from writing a rag. In a song there are lyrics to help define and convey the intended ideas, and if married to an effective melody and chord progression those lyrics and the song as a whole will potentially have the maximum desired effect on the listener. But again, this usually entails one or two basic ideas or themes within a structure that varies from that of ragtime.
Piano ragtime, or more broadly, instrumental ragtime,
is unique in a way since the very definition of a rag (see my article on What Are Ragtime and Old-Time Music
for detailed information) is different in many respects from a song, jazz ensemble piece, blues, sonata, symphony, or even a march. The more that the composer knows about overall structure and, the most appropriate word that could be thought of, the "requirements" of a piano rag, then the more likely that they will be able to compose within those boundaries or expand them into something new without totally collapsing the basic structure. While lesser composers, and particularly unschooled composers, were certainly able to write interesting or noteworthy rags during the heyday of ragtime, two points can be made about this.
First, with no deference to the inherent talents of many, almost everybody was writing and recording disco during the disco craze of the 1970s (including the author to a small degree of success), and since disco sold, their pieces were getting out there even if they would now be considered substandard. The same was true in the ragtime era, especially for smaller publishers who were as eager to cash in on the craze as the larger ones, and would often feature local composers or push vanity runs of pieces that ragtime scholars now consider quaint or at least indicative of the folk roots from which they came.
The second point is that many of these rags made it into print through the efforts of experienced and educated arrangers who were able to take a basic rag that was played for them, apply effective chord changes and syncopation or other points of composition, and create what was in essence often more of a collaboration than a transcription. The work done by Artie Matthews
in the 1910s is a good argument to support this point, since his arrangements of the works of many other composers often had great similarities to his own Pastime Rags
. So even though the composer may not have felt that they needed, or usually could not obtain the full breadth of experience and education necessary to bring their ideas to fruition without assistance, it was often the arrangers that filled in these gaps, showing that the criteria we have been discussing does help to some point. Also note that Scott Joplin
, James Scott
, Clarence Woods
, Artie Matthews
, George L. Cobb
and others were formally trained, as the quality of their output certainly indicates, and that even Joe Lamb
, who was taught to a degree by his sister, and further by his studies of Etude
magazine, had a collective basis in music education that contributed to the brilliant works he turned out. The same applies to many talented women composers, who were often more likely to have been formally trained than men, given society at that time.
It arguably helps
that the composer should have some inherent musical talent in the first place. I lack many natural abilities that I don't believe I could learn too well, such as fashion design, hair cutting, stock management, politics, etc. So I try to do what I can with those abilities inherent in me and/or those that have been acquired through education. Some people are well trained in something they have no natural acuity for, and end up destined to be mediocre in this regard, when they have a natural talent in another field [look up The Peter Principle
]. Those that discover this natural talent at some point in their life certainly benefit from it, as does the world. Did you know that the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield
sold aluminum siding well into his 40s before returning to comedy as a career, something he had failed at two decades prior? Or that Harrison Ford
was planning a career as a custom carpenter after sparse movie appearances when he was tapped for Star Wars
? I could have continued as a Business and Economics major, but finally went with my instinct to stay with music, achieving a degree of success. So, an honest assessment of your ability and comfort level or confidence that you are also suited to play or compose ragtime is also a prudent exercise that can make a difference, but is not necessarily a requirement.
With all that said, here is a list of suggested items for background or skill sets that may be of immense help when approaching ragtime composition either for the first time or even after having some experience behind you.
- Ragtime Foundation: Before you compose Ragtime, what is your global knowledge base of ragtime structure? The more you know about the fundamentals of a piano rag, and the many ways you can bend those fundamentals into something that is unique but still holds true to the structure, the more success you will likely have.
- Playing Foundation: Being able to play through a piano rag, rather than have a computer play it for you, is helpful in not only hearing the composition and knowing that it is what you intended to write, but also to know if it is truly playable or not. If it is not easily playable, such as with some of the works of Robin Frost who has written complex pieces just for MIDI simply because they sound great (they really do), then the approach is less piano-based and has a different marketability. For something that you intend to distribute for others to play, however, and for winning a ragtime composition competition, your ability to play can also enhance your ability to compose. If you can play other rags, you should be able to play your own, if that is your intent, or at least have somebody available to play it in your place to represent the work.
- Notation Foundation: While it is possible for a non-reader/non-notater to have success in music (Sir Paul McCartney being a shining example), in ragtime this ability becomes nearly critical. Unlike pop music, the exact placement of syncopation, juxtaposition of chords and harmonic movement, and overall readability of a score have a large bearing on the outcome of a piece, particularly if others are to play it. If the notation is limited to what is done on the computer, good knowledge of the software is required for best results. In any case, basic music reading and writing skills will most certainly enhance the outcome.
- Musical Foundation: Most of the more successful ragtime composers, going back to Joplin and Scott, and continuing on to William Bolcom or his contemporaries, possessed an appreciable to extensive background in the music that came before. This includes Bach preludes, Mozart sonatas, Chopin nocturnes, Debussy arabesques, Strauss waltzes, and even Sousa marches. In some cases, many of the patterns found in pieces by these composers, if not absolute quotes, have found their way into piano rags. What is important is the sense of structure as well as the stretching of boundaries that is found in all of these great writers. Overall knowledge of musical history and style will give a composer a diversity that a single focus cannot, therefore potentially fostering a fusion of styles or genres that can create a new sound, or enhance an existing one.
- Harmony and Theory: If you have a basic understanding of ragtime structure you can do fairly well in composition. However, a background, even minimal, in harmony and theory, will often make certain compositional decisions easier. This includes the knowledge of chord relationships in respect to the tonic key, varieties of chord progressions and how to resolve them, working with the circle of fifths or fourths, symmetrical and asymmetrical structures, various major and minor modes, and quick analysis of these elements in established compositions. With enough experience, given some natural ability, one can analyze a piece fairly effectively just by listening, and even incorporate ideas they have heard without having to hack at the keyboard to bring these ideas to fruition. Courses are available at many community colleges or universities, as well as in theory books, and six months to a year spent in these studies will enhance your overall knowledge of the workings of music, demystifying ragtime to some degree.
- Sounding Board: Unless you are writing for your own amusement, if you want your rags to escape into the general growing collective of ragtime compositions, it is helpful to have a sounding board, someone who you trust and respect to give you their honest opinion. This does not have to be somebody that fits all the criteria listed above. However, if they have more than just a smidgen of knowledge about music in general and ragtime specifically, you will get a better reading on how your piece comes across. It is harder to analyze "I don't like that part much," than "That second phrase in the B section didn't quite work for me harmonically." If it is a fellow composer that you turn to ask for an honest critique, you really need to be prepared for the response. As long as the critique is constructive and has some specific points for improvement, or even about retention or expansion of some ideas, then you should not take any of it personally since most experienced composers are looking at the notes, not the notater. You also have the choice of incorporating or deferring any of the suggestions as well, but should at least hear them. To this end, the combination of YouTube videos and Facebook ragtime groups are very effective in collecting opinions, and even getting help when needed.
Many of the points above can be discussed in other forums, such as the level of training in the classics that is necessary, or the basis in theory and harmony. As we delve into more detail now, the focus will be on various modes of thinking that can be used to help with a composition, and also what to look for and avoid. This will assume basic knowledge of or experience pertaining to most of the suggested criteria above, which will be referred to in general unless a specific example is warranted. Get that education if you can!
How to start?
With an idea, of course. This is something that comes from many levels and may be different each time. I have started with a genre, a single motif (a short phrase with a specific rhythmic and/or melodic pattern), a concept, visualization, and most often with a title. I can think up some great titles, and have at least forty right now that have not been composed yet, but are still cool rag names. One that I appropriated (and am still apologizing for) was Blood on the Keys
, suggested by friend and ragtime artist/composer Sue Keller
. That name just put a certain visualization in my head that quickly evolved into a flexible motif used throughout the piece, then into a specific chord progression, and finally into a pretty decent rag. Another was my Hanon Rag
, which started with Hanon piano exercises (a necessity that I deplored at times). I just picked the ones I wanted (many of them worked within the concept), then turned them into a mid-1910s rag novelty. In other cases, I have started with a concept, like my Ragtime Nocturne
. In this instance, it was very useful to be well-versed in the Nocturnes of Fredric Chopin
, which I emulated to some extent within a ragtime framework. For Buck's Banjo
, I was prompted by an event, banjoist Buck Kelly's
pending death from cancer, and one of his favorite pieces, Little Rock Getaway
. It was played at the life celebration held after his funeral. So you can see that there are multiple inspirational muses that become compositional paths one may take. Sometimes a piece will flow out naturally, as with my Wiener Schnitzel Rag
which literally composed itself in my head one night. Others may take a bit of hacking and some deliberate analysis during composing, as with my Necromancer
and Pride of the Prairie
. Finding other styles, like Novelty (Chinese Checkers
) and Stride Crocodile Stomp
can expand your abilities as well. However you
might best start the process, get that start, and then pick a motif or two to work with.
Let us discuss the importance of a good motif and how it can not only help with composition, but also bring unity and coherence to a rag. In greater detail, a motif is a collective idea that encapsulates a specific or general melodic line, a particular rhythmic pattern, or in most cases a combination of both. As a well-known example we will use The Entertainer
by Scott Joplin
, followed by the Maple Leaf Rag
. Knowing how this concept works with these rags can help you apply it to your own.
- The Entertainer:
Shown first here is the primary motif of this lyrical piece. It can be simplified to just the E and the C above it as the very minimal basis, so it is extremely sparse but effective even at the highest level. This motif is used at face value three times in each iteration of the A section. When comparing it to the only other motif in the A section, found in the following two measures, this second motif can also be reduced to an E and the C below it, so it has harmonic similarity. Note that the second motif starts three eighth notes in front of the bar. This idea is repeated three times in the B section, using the same chords one inversion up in most cases, and providing both harmonic and rhythmic cohesion with the A section. The trio introduces a third motif that is found in modified format in the D section. But the trio also features a variation on the first motif iterating between the lower and upper notes of a sixth, providing more continuity. The use of the last four bars of the B section as a transition from the trio to the D section also ties things together. Note also the similarity of the chord progression at the end of the B, trio and D sections, which is ostensibly VI VI+ dim, I/V I/V II V I or a similar pattern. This was either well thought out, coincidental because these basic ideas were running through the composer's head, or most likely a combination of these elements.
- Maple Leaf Rag:
The primary motif of this famous work actually provides more continuity through the rhythm than the melodic line, and is comprised of the right hand of the first two full measures. The other motif used throughout the rag is a variation on an upward octave-based arpeggio, something also found within the primary motif on a smaller scale, providing continuity through movement. The first 12 measures of the B section use the rhythmic motif of the A section with a different melodic line, as shown here. A modification of the first motif is also used in measures 3-4 of the trio and beyond, with an extra note inserted. The D section shares the least continuity with the other three, but has a consistent chord progression pattern that helps tie it in. Many of the same concepts are repeated in Sugar Cane Rag but to a slightly higher degree of sophistication. In any case, consistent use of rhythmic patterns and melodic lines make reading and memorization easier, as well as better identification and acceptance by the listener.
The point to be made here is that there is that adding even a hint of continuity between sections can spell the difference between a memorable rag that sounds like it was composed all at the same time, and one that sounds like several different ideas cobbled into one awkward and sometimes jarring framework. If you have an idea in your head and work with it, this idea may certainly help influence variations that will give you the continuity you might desire. If this is not your intent, then at least other points of continuity such as tonic key relationships or metrical patterns can also be used to great effect while maintaining the individuality you may be looking for.
There are other parts of the rag framework to consider as well, some of which can have either a desired or negative impact on your composition depending on how they are used. These are outlined below:
- Key Signature: For certain melodic lines, and more frequently for certain chord progressions, the selection of an initial key signature can have both an emotional and physical impact on the listener as well as the player. Without going into the physics and metaphysics of harmonics and frequencies, just know that some pieces can obtain additional richness simply by switching the tonic of key signature up or down a half step. The difference between C, Db and D in some cases makes for a good example. Many musicians seem to favor Db over the other two, given an A=440 even-tempered tuning, because it often sounds much richer. D tends to be a very bright key in comparison, while C can seem mundane or dull. But in other cases, the effects of the brightness of D or the basic regularity of C can also produce a desired effect. In this regard, experimentation and a sounding board are both helpful, as is the use of an acoustic piano vs. a digital one, since speakers or poor digital samples can produce false harmonics that are otherwise more consistent among acoustic instruments. Key signature is also a factor in both playability and readability. If you follow the more traditional path where a rag shifts up a fourth after the first two sections and you started in five flats, you will be now working in six. If the piece is so intentional in its sound, such as Poltergeist or Dream Shadows by Bill Bolcom, this inconvenience is secondary. But for less skilled players and readers, poor key signature selections can stunt the growth and spread of a ragtime composition.
- Harmonic Shifts: This refers to the changes between or even within sections in relation to the original key signature. For example, most rags that start in Eb will shift up a fourth to Ab after the first two sections. This is a guideline, and not a given, since there are many valid variations with which to work. You can keep a rag in the same key throughout, something that works very well with folk-style ragtime. This is particularly effective if you use the major-minor shift within the initial key signature to provide variety. You can also shift the key of the second section. When this is done the secondary key is usually up a fifth, but this is again just a historical usage, as a fourth might be equally valid, followed by another fourth into the trio. Joplin set all kinds of templates, doing a transition from C into Bb into Eb in The Cascades, and from C into Ab, then back to C in A Breeze from Alabama. So there are a lot of innovative ways to work with key signatures and harmonic shifts without breaking the structure of a rag.
- Syncopation: This is one of the most difficult concepts that I have encountered among the many compositions that have been sent to me over the years. In many cases I have received what amounts to a march or simple cakewalk since it is devoid of syncopation and every note lands on a beat or sub-beat. A simple construction is used here to demonstrate an example of this:
In others, almost every right hand chord is on the offbeat, giving a sensation that the left and right hands are simply out of synchronization. An example of this using the same construction is demonstrated here:
Syncopation, or putting the emphasis on a particular note that is not on one of the primary beats within a measure, can be used to best effect when both of these extremes are avoided. In many cases, particularly with initial writing efforts until experience is gained, the syncopation is best emphasized when it is made longer than the notes leading up to it or after it. For example, within a pattern of eighth notes, if one of those notes on the and of a beat (1 and 2 and 3...) is held as a quarter note, you have the beginnings of a syncopated pattern. If that note is further held over a bar line from the end of one measure into the next, it contributes further to a true ragtime syncopation. The construction used for the previous 2 examples is shown here with some syncopation, as designated with the & under each one of them:
Note also that one of the chords is broken up into individual notes. However, since they are passing tones followed by other notes of the same value, this is not considered to be a syncopated pattern. There are many possibilities for how effective syncopation can be accomplished, but until you have experience with rag composition, sticking to one, two or potentially three rhythmic patterns without too much inter-mixing of those patterns will help you get the feel on how to control the syncopation. This does not necessarily mean that less is more, but more can most certainly be messy. Consistent patterns make the rag more rhythmically memorable, leading to some toe-tapping and other movement. Work your way up from there as you advance in your compositional ability.
- Overall Form and Structure: Within the largely established framework of ragtime is a subset of accepted templates for piano rag form that echo to some extent those found in earlier classical composition formats. For example, the Classic Rag template may be viewed as 16 bar sections in an Intro A A B B A Trio Trio D D format, or often B1 B1 in place of D D. This is only a template, but some semblance of a similar ideology needs to be maintained or the structure can collapse enough to the point where it is no longer a true rag. One needs to look no further than Scott Joplin for some of the best variations on this theme. This includes going right to the trio from the B section, closing with the A section, inserting an interlude within the trio (common with marches and intermezzos), adding a transition between sections, using up to six sections, closing with a coda, and even expanding sections to 18, 20 or 24 bars. Many composers would also extend a 16 bar section into a 32 bar section with variations on the repeat, or use repeated 8 bar sections for transitional purposes. The basic thought process to maintain the ragtime structure should be to compose at least three sections, using a repeat or variation on each section to restate it in some manner. Less than three distinct sections creates something closer to a song. For example, Red Wing was published as both a song and an intermezzo, the latter echoing a typical three-section ragtime or intermezzo format. Without the added trio, the piece is comprised of what amounts to a verse and chorus. Add the strong trio and you have an expanded piece that relies on music, rather than music and lyrics, to keep the listener's attention. One can also use minimalist methodology with a simple theme and still create a full rag. A good example of this is Chicken Chowder, which depends largely on a single scale pattern motif as its basis. The trio is nothing more than the A section upside down and in a new key, but it works enough to keep variety within the rag. The form and structure should also be logically mapped in such a way that it will be easy to follow in print, as discussed in the Readability section below.
- Internal Form and Structure: There are some rules that apply, and that can also be stretched, about the structure within a section as well. One of these is the issue of symmetry and asymmetry. This takes on two faces. There is measure symmetry and asymmetry, and musical symmetry and asymmetry. In terms of measures, this means a logical division within a section, usually of an even number of measures. A division, for example, of 7 and 9 measures, which means starting the musical idea of the second half of a section after only 7 measures, is awkward at best, and even the most skilled of composers might have trouble making that work. But it does not necessarily have to be an 8 and 8 division; just something that makes metrical and musical sense. If you do end up with 7 or 9 measures in part of a section, then you may need to listen again and see where the missing measure has gone, or perhaps where an extra measure should be excised or contracted. You can often break sections down into 2 or 4 measure increments for analysis. I have seen a number of rags where this rule is inadvertently broken, and usually unintentionally. Even if the casual listener can't define the anomaly, they will nonetheless notice it. The other symmetry/asymmetry aspect concerns the content of each half of a section. A symmetrical section will rarely be a 50/50 exact duplication, but the intent is there. An asymmetrical section usually has two ideas and is split. As a demonstration of both of these, we can again turn to the Maple Leaf Rag.
Shown above, using both coloring and lettering, is a map highlighting the symmetry and asymmetry of each section. The opening strain is asymmetrical. The first and second halves of the section are evenly divided, but use different thematic ideas. The B section is symmetrical for the most part. Both halves carry the same idea, and there are rhythmic similarities in the last four-measures of each half. The trio is tricky in this regard. It has elements of both, so it can be regarded as harmonically asymmetrical, but rhythmically symmetrical, as the same idea is carried over the middle. By contrast, The Entertainer is a highly symmetrical rag throughout, with each section half starting with the same four measure phrase within that section. In fact, the trio only varies by three measures between each half. Magnetic Rag provides an interesting look at mixed symmetry as well. The C section is unusual in ragtime, but works very well. It is divided thematically in this manner, which provides both symmetry and asymmetry very neatly. In the largest division, it is an unlikely 14/10 split. But to break it down further, the measured themes are 4/2/4/4 in the first half, then 4/2/4 in the second half. The first six measures are identical in each half, then a full eight-measure theme is played out in the first half, while an alternate four section theme is used to close out the second. Since the idea started in the first six measures is tied up so nicely in the second half, and using a completely different idea than in the first, the difference in length is not so notable. So as long as there is proper flow within the section and some internal symmetry, a level of creative license can be taken very effectively. Just count carefully and make sure that the divisions make proper sense or have a specific function.
- Tempo: This seems like a huge variable, but less so than one might think, as explained in my article on Tempos and Pedaling. If you have an intentional tempo that you want, or even a mix of tempos, there are several ways to make this clear in your notation. The most obvious is to include a literal tempo marking at the appropriate points, such as the beginning. All it requires from you is a metronome to gauge it. However, sometimes tempo is relative, and you don't want to seem so restrictive. Try being descriptive, but in subtly detailed ways. "Slow March Tempo" has its place, but since we don't commonly hear marches in our everyday lives, and since people tend to march at different paces, it is not necessarily enough. Try tempering it with descriptive terms such as Gracefully, Emphatically, Deliberately, Full Steam Ahead, With Laughter, Plaintively, or one of my favorites used by Bill Bolcom, Insouciantly. This adds a suggested feeling into a tempo, covering more ground in less space. Rubato can also be implied through more than the use of just fermatas, just by suggesting Freely. In conjunction with a literal b.p.m. metronome speed, your intent as a composer (which some people will still ignore in favor of their own preference) will be much clearer.
- Markings: As much as good composition can suggest how a piece is played, such as a rise and fall in a melodic line or the sparseness or denseness of the harmonic contents and chords, providing more information will help the performer, and even yourself, gain a better picture of how to interpret parts or the whole of a piece. Not the least of these is dynamics. They do not need to be inserted in every other measure to be effective, but if the section calls for it this is not too much. The example here is probably transmitting too much information to the player:
Just seeing f or mp, or even First time mf, second time ff at the beginning of a section helps the performer in their interpretation. Additional items like crescendo lines are also useful and provide more definition. Deliberate items having to do with attack can even further enhance your composition. These include staccato, portato or stress markings, arpeggios or rolls, accents and fermatas. Showing pedaling is usually not as critical, but in certain cases it can be helpful. If setting up a pattern, the first two or so measures of pedaling can be displayed followed by simile indicating a continuation of that pattern in a similar manner. If you also want to be specific about phrasing, good phrase markings help define legato sections and when a player should break a pattern, something that can enhance the melodic line and also add more definition to the pedaling as well. This can also be done by altering beam breaks, but that method should be approached with caution. Finally, octave shifts need to be well placed so the starting and ending note of an 8va or 8vb section are obvious. For well-marked compositions, more really is more when there is a specific ideal for performance, and less is also more if that determination is to be left to the performer.
- Readability: This concept relates to any form of notation, be it by hand, offset printing plates, or computer. Most of these give the composer a great deal of flexibility in terms of visual presentation of the rag. The most obvious component of this should be measure spacing and width, which can vary depending on how dense the notes are within a measure. Most software programs can also alter individual spacing of notes or beats within a measure as well. The example shown here is certainly easier to read than the one above. However, measure 1 is spaced wider than is necessary, and measure 2 is squeezed too tightly to be read. Measure 3 is marginally compressed, but still readable, and measures 4 and 5 are near the default width as per the software.
Elements that are not as obvious are how very high and very low notes are voiced or notated, horizontal and vertical placement of the various markings listed in the previous item, crossovers between hands, fingerings, chords, the actual size ratio to the page of both notes and staves, and page breaks. The latter is a potential annoyance to many pianists as they read through a piece. For a rag, the most obvious page break is either between sections (after the 1st and 2nd endings, of course), or even directly in the middle of a section. A break at measure 14 of 16, or measure 5 of 32 is awkward to turn at or read ahead from. So sometimes a bit of massaging is necessary to properly paginate a score to avoid this. One thing that can be taken into account is the use of repeated sections. In many rags, the A section is repeated after B. While some modern composers (and a couple of ragtime era publishers) choose to simply send the player back to the initial A section, following a map of segnos and codas to the trio, a more traditional reiteration of the section can be used, and physically compressed as well since it has already been stated (variations being the exception). The same is true of a D section that merely echoes the B section in a new key. Once the pattern has been established, it is often possible to compress sixteen measures spread over four staves into three or three and one half, and still make the score readable. It can be argued that "notes is notes is notes." However, if an accidental is hard to read because it is partially obscured by the note preceding it, or the player has difficulty because they are turning the pages every ten or twelve measures while scanning across vast expanses of empty stave between notes, it can have an adverse effect on both their perception and performance of the piece. Appearance does matter to a great extent.
The most subjective part of the composition is, of course, the melodic and harmonic content. Since this is the part that usually comes from inspiration either within or around the composer, the actual content cannot really be discussed since there are nearly infinite variations on it. However, there are still some points that can be highlighted which will apply to many ragtime compositions.
- Harmonic Progression: Much of the strength of a rag which gives it a uniqueness, but can also determine its playability and memorability, is the harmonic content. It is helpful to have had some training in harmony and theory, as discussed above, to further analyze and understand the effects of good or poor harmonic progressions on music. But we will keep to basics here. If a harmonic progression sounds awkward, it likely is awkward, even if it is innovative. There are some good pieces in the ragtime liturgy that nonetheless have awkward chord progressions and transitions. Some of them can be easily fixed without changing the melodic line or general feel. Others may require more surgery. Note also that much of what is awkward applies to prevailing opinions about Western music, and you may simply choose to eschew such conventions to create your own take on a progression. One example of what can perceived as an awkward progression, using standard harmonic notation in relation to the tonic, is as follows, assuming one chord per two beats (lower case indicates minor chords): I I vi vi II II I I. The awkward transition here is from the major II chord back to the I chord. There are at least a couple of ways to smooth this transition. The first would be to alter the major II to the minor ii, however this may not fit with the melodic line, or not convey your intent. Knowing that any major chord has a V-I relationship with the major or minor chord a fourth higher, you can always try II V I instead, even saving the V for the and of the beat just before the return to I. In C, this would change C C Am Am D D C C to C C Am Am D G C C or even C C Am Am D D G C. The thinking here is simply to experiment with intermediary chords between awkward transitions, yet still retain the direction you desire. Also, as discussed above, specific harmonic progressions can provide continuity between sections, particularly if used for the last four measures of two or more sections. We could delve much deeper into this topic, but there are many good books on harmony and theory, which I would encourage you to discover for a more detailed perspective.
- Melodic Line: To state this as politely as possible, a great many newer rags that I have heard over the past two decades, or that have been submitted to me for analysis and critique, simply lack shape or cohesion melodically. They often appear to be random collections of notes with erratic syncopation, no syncopation, or nothing but syncopation, and often are not even supported by the harmonic content, or vice-versa. What follows can be considered general advice on this issue, incorporating some of what I have also discussed with other successful composers and ragtime experts. A ragtime melody benefits from shape and flow. Shape can be viewed both musically and geometrically. In a piece like Black and White Rag the shape is easy to define, since it is easily contained within a very small note range in each two measure phrase. In a more complex piece like American Beauty, within the extended phrases there is a visual rise and fall that not only follows a coherent harmonic pattern, but also avoids extreme tangents away from that pattern. Even patterns with a quick trip through octaves, such as found in the A section of Maple Leaf Rag or Gladiolus Rag follow a harmonic pattern with a definitive shape. Any notes that do not agree with the harmonic content, unless they are deliberate (such as used to great effect by Billy Mayerl or Robin Frost), should be leading or passing tones, followed by a note with greater emphasis that brings the listener back into the pattern. Leaps are also difficult to judge. Those within the harmonic structure, such as octaves, tenths, even sevenths, may work well and were commonly used in early ragtime. The melody does not necessarily need to be hummable, but it can benefit from a "hook" that lets the user mentally or emotionally embrace it, or in the case of novelty pieces, marvel at its complexity without being distracted by it. As for cohesion, using a particular phrase only once or creating a section of distinct phrases with little inter-relationship stands the risk of creating musical chaos. Some level of melodic repetition within each section, even a harmonic variation on the motif, will help codify the cohesion factor making the rag more accessible to the listener.
It cannot be emphasized enough that even though much of what is presented here is a collection or consensus of opinion based on correspondence and interviews the author has had with his peers, there are many other valid points of view to be respected as well. However, since ragtime piano compositions do fall within a classification that can be well defined to a great extent, many of the guidelines here should help you create a piece that falls within that classification and can be truly called a piano rag. The other more subjective guidelines will also offer you some criteria to help you determine by yourself, or with another "sounding board," where improvements may be made to a piece, and what works well on its own. If you stray outside of these guidelines then your creation may not be a piano rag any longer, but it still may be quite valid as something within its own unique genre or category.
that has been asked of me personally, and also posted on discussion groups and Facebook in recent years, is as follows: Should players improvise music, or should they stick to the printed page? The answer to this seems obvious to both me and many of my colleagues, but not to all. In relation to certain classical works, such as those of Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, they are so well transcribed or well textured that improvisation of the notes is really not necessary, leaving translation differences to tempos, rubatos, dynamics and touch. In ragtime piano, improvisation or variation is encouraged and embraced by composers and players, since it exploits the possibilities of the genre and allows each performer to give individual identity to their performance. However, the big picture answer to this question should be that improvisation is essential.
After all, improvisation is creation in a sense, and without improvisation and creation, composition would be impossible. Think about this — musical styles have evolved through time, particularly over the last four centuries in Western music. This evolution is the result of musicians building on or altering musical concepts that already exist, and refining them to a new level or even new a paradigm for music. Ragtime itself is an improvised conglomeration of several musical heritages, ranging from widely accepted classical conventions and the structure of marches and polkas to the rough-hewn yet rhythmically complex songs passed down through black heritage. Somebody, or more rightly a collection of somebodies, improvised on these forms to create a new one. Yes, improvisation is a necessary component of composition and musical evolution.
So if you are just starting to compose ragtime, reevaluating or building on your composition base, or even creating a new paradigm for composition, realize that your input is certainly equal to that of all those who contributed to music in general over the centuries. But also know that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. It can be argued that new ideas are not as fresh when the person creating them is building on an existing template of old ideas without incorporating some new ones. I would argue, and this is where I state my opinion <climbing up on the soap box> that the more knowledge you have not only about the genre you are composing in but about a wide spectrum of musical genres, the more sources of inspiration and style you will have to draw upon to create something familiar, unique, easy, complex, identifiable, hard to categorize, and thoroughly individualistic. While it is most certainly possible to create a viable and enjoyable ragtime composition with minimal experience (and history does support this), the more you explore the topic and the more points of view that you seek out, the easier it may become to get your ideas down in a way that will expand upon that little tune that's been bugging you for quite some time </descending from the soap box>.
In the end, one of the best barometers you can use to gauge your own composition is to listen to other ragtime compositions in a sub-genre similar to that in which you either intend or believe you have composed in, be it classic rag, folk, contemporary, etc. If something still does not sound right to you, it may not be right, and if you can't discern the problem, seek out somebody who may be able to assist you in this regard. Again, you can use the existing ragtime liturgy to help analyze such problems as well. The more you listen both within and outside of the genre, the more diversity you potentially may gain. The more you write, the better you may potentially get. The potential in this case also depends on personal attitude and confidence, which is usually accumulative. There will likely be falls and fails. Something may not work. One of my favorite sayings is, "If at first you don't succeed, try something different." At some point you may discover new things about yourself. If one of those things is that you don't have the potential to be a ragtime composer, it may be because you are better suited for jazz, new age, hip hop, or even a career as a politician. But do not deny yourself the experience of trying if you have felt the urge to do so. It is an exploration that is part of the human experience, and if you are successful in your venture, you will also add to the experience of humanity. Isn't that worth a try?
If you have a rag or even a few rags that you have composed, but have not yet done much with, or want to have them critiqued, or were thinking of sending them to me for that purpose at some point, I would ask that you be aware of the protocol for this process and follow these guidelines for such a submission. Please do not send images or files of pieces without advance warning followed by my invitation, as they can clog the mailbox very quickly. My preference is, in this order: Finale 2000 compatible, MIDI, .jpg or .gif image files, and sound files in .aac, .mp3 or .wma format. For the last three audio formats specifically, as well as the others mentioned, if you can arrange a link to a web server, rather than send the items in email, that is of further usefulness and assistance.
Know also that if you solicit my opinion that you will get my opinion. I am thorough if that is required, try to back up the opinion with known data or suggestions, and will tell you what does work or what does not. If the piece is simply not a rag, or needs major improvement, I will not hesitate to let you know this, but in a constructive manner. Do not take any critiques personally, since they are critiques of the work and not of the person. You also have the option of accepting the input and either embracing or rejecting it. I openly encourage seeking opinions from others in the field of ragtime as well to give a more balanced point of view that will either support or counter mine. If you can accept these terms, I will gladly offer an assessment of one piece at a time, working it into my schedule as quickly as I can. Thank you for your understanding on this.
Submission requests may be sent to me at
, Ragtime Composition in the subject line.