12 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Ragtime Piano Pieces

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Ragtime music, with its distinctive syncopated rhythms and lively melodies, has captured the hearts of music lovers for over a century. One of the most iconic instruments associated with ragtime is the piano, which served as the backbone of many ragtime compositions.

And in this post, we’ll explore 12 of the greatest and most famous ragtime piano pieces from the early days of the genre. So whether you’re a seasoned pianist or a casual listener, check out some of these timeless classics of Ragtime.

1. “The Entertainer” By Scott Joplin

Probably the most iconic and well-known piece of Ragtime music is undoubtedly “The Entertainer.” Written by the Ragtime King, Scott Joplin, it gained popularity during the early 1900s and then again in the 1970s.

For many people, “The Entertainer” is one of the first pieces that pop into their minds when they think about piano music. The composition is happy, upbeat, and is guaranteed to lift anybody’s mood.

Beginner players might find this piece difficult, as one’s hands must be an octave span several times throughout the piece. But intermediate players, and most definitely experts, can be masters of “The Entertainer” easily.

2. “Top Liner Rag” By Joseph Lamb

If you are looking for a hit you can play for other people, consider giving “Top Liner Rag” a try! It was written by Joseph Lamb—who was considered one of the big three of ragtime music, together with James Scott and Scott Joplin—in 1916.

Published by Stark Music Co. and originally titled “Cotton Tail,” “Top Liner Rag” is overall considered the best of Lamb’s heavy ragtime songs.

Of note, the piece is written in cut time. What this means is that the rhythm is 2/4. It will quickly draw the listener in but gives the player the urge to play it faster and faster. To avoid this, consider using an online metronome.

3. “Maple Leaf Rag” By Scott Joplin

Here is another fun piece written by Scott Joplin. Published in 1899, “Maple Leaf Rag” is the one he composed that gained him the King of Ragtime title. It is also considered to have set the standard for the genre.

If you are used to classical ragtime music, this is a piece that will definitely test your skills in different ways. Though the tempo is slower, good coordination is needed, particularly with the left hand, due to the two-octave leaps in the trio of the C section.

Notably, lyrics were added to “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1903 by Sydney Brown. Unlike the composition, which is in A-flat, the song is in E-flat. The C-section was also removed.

4. “Elite Syncopations” By Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin shows up again with this popular piano piece. Published in 1903, “Elite Syncopations” is among his popular ragtime pieces. It’s named after the off-beat, bouncing rhythms ragtime is characterized.

As you play this piece, the baseline is going to act as an exceptional countermelody to the tune being played in the right hand. In addition, there are a variety of chromatic tricks to tickle the ear, particularly in the A section.

In the 1970s, a ballet of the same name was launched by Kenneth MacMillan, who, at that time, was the Royal Ballet’s artistic director. “Elite Syncopations” is among the ragtime pieces featured in the performance.

5. “Black And White Rag” By George Botsford

“Black and White Rag” is a piece published in 1908. It was written by George Botsford, one of the most iconic composers of his era, and was recorded for both piano and phonograph.

Botsford received a formal music education, so “Black and White Rag” does not necessarily have the same level of flexibility as the others on this list. However, it was still written in the ragtime style nonetheless.

In 1941, jazz pianist Wally Rose recorded the most popular version of this piece. Though “Black and White Rag” was created for the piano, it became a standard for the fiddle by Benny Thomasson and Johnny Gimble.

6. “Tiger Rag” By Jelly Roll Morton

In 1917, the Original Dixieland Jass (changed to Jazz in 1917) Band recorded and copyrighted “Tiger Rag.” Jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton composed the popular piano version most known today.

“Tiger Rag” is a beautiful mixture of both jazz and ragtime music, and there are a number of fun tricks that Morton used to bring out the best of both. There is a lot of overlap between jazz and ragtime, and you will definitely hear them working well together in this music.

This ragtime piece is so popular that a number of artists have recorded it, from Louie Armstrong to the Beatles to Les Paul and many more. In 2002, the US Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry.

7. “Frog Legs Rag” By James Scott

The third of the big three of ragtime, we have next James Scott, one of the most prolific ragtime composers of the era. “Frog Legs Rag” was a piece he composed around 1906.

The composition was published to critical acclaim and was the second most commercially successful—first was “Maple Leaf Rag,” discussed earlier—at the time.

“Frog Legs Rag” has a similar but more sophisticated take on the B section of “Maple Leaf Rag” in its own B section. It also features Scott’s characteristic echo in the D section, which can be heard in most of his rag pieces.

8. “The Charleston Rag” By Eubie Blake

Composed and published in 1899 by Eubie Blake, “The Charleston Rag” was one of the most popular pieces of the era. It was often played with a number of other musical instruments. That being said, it can certainly be played solo on the piano.

Even though there are numerous rhythms that are found throughout the piece, you will also hear swing undertones that would soon emerge in the 1900s. You will also hear a lot of musical traits that are reflected in the compositions of later ragtime composers, like Jelly Roll Morton.

9. “The Mississippi Rag” By William Henry Krell

If you are looking for something that is a bit off the beaten path, you may want to check out “The Mississippi Rag” by William Henry Krell. Composed in 1897, it is said that the piece is the first ever ragtime number published.

However, “The Mississippi Rag” has a less syncopated rhythm in it than most traditionalists like. So much so that it is often referred to as a cakewalk piece rather than ragtime; because of its title, it became prominent in rag history.

Test your skills on (or listen to) “The Mississippi Rag,” and pay attention to the rhythm build-up toward the middle, then slow down near the end of the sheet music.

10. “Grace And Beauty” By James Scott

Next up, we have another classic composed by James Scott. “Grace and Beauty” was published by John Stillwell Stark in 1909 and is among Scott’s best ragtime pieces.

With a scintillating rhythm, “Grace and Beauty” has an intro that smoothly transitions into the A section with a rising harmony. Sections repeat throughout the piece, and the C section features an echo device Scott is well-known for using in his ragtime compositions.

The syncopated beat of “Grace and Beauty” isn’t very fast and upbeat. As the name suggests, it has a more polished tone than most ragtimes already mentioned here.

11. “The Cake Walk In The Sky” By Ben Harney

“The Cake Walk in the Sky” was composed by Benjamin Robertson Harney in 1899. It might not be as popular as some of the other pieces on the list, but it is definitely a unique piece from the ragtime movement.

Soon after, Harney composed a version of “The Cake Walk in the Sky” with lyrics. This became the first written vocal rag or scat.

It is interesting to note that on the original cover of the sheet music, it states that “The Cake Walk in the Sky” was a “Rag-time Nightmare.” But you be the judge of that; try the piece out or give it a listen!

12. “The Cascades” By Scott Joplin

We began the list with a piece composed by Scott Joplin, and we’ll conclude with another of his work as well. “The Cascades,” published in 1904, is not one of the most well-known pieces by the composer, yet it is no less important.

Joplin wrote “The Cascades,”, especially for the St. Louis World’s Fair that year. The title is for the centerpiece of the fair—a cascade of 14 waterfalls.

The tune itself is almost as tinkling as water flowing and splashing, with a portion of the B and C section having your fingers cascade over the piano keys over a few octaves.

Summing Up Our List Of Popular Ragtime Piano Pieces

In the end, these are just a few of the numerous pieces available if you are thinking about giving ragtime music a try. A very popular form of piano that is still played to this day, each one is worth a try.

So whether you’re here to know which ragtime compositions to play yourself on the piano or something new to listen to, there’s bound to be one we’ve mentioned that will suit your fancy.

Have we missed a ragtime piano piece that should be on the list? Let us know, and we’ll add it for you! 

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.