Ragtime and Blues

Differences between Ragtime and Blues

Jazz emerged as a result of the social state of affairs between the white people and African-Americans in the late nineteenth century. The white population sought to keep slavery under control while people of color wanted to develop and preserve their own traditions and culture. As a unique musical genre, jazz is passed down through generations representing traditions of the African-American communities, mainly ragtime and blues. Ragtime is primarily an upbeat style based on piano playing while blues is rooted in the work songs performed in the traditions of the Southern plantations. The paper seeks to explore similarities and differences between ragtime and blues that originated at the same time as jazz.

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The difference between blues and ragtime includes influence, main compositions, and performers. Through them, the development of these musical genres has greatly affected the jazz revolution. Since ragtime and blues are described as styles directly related to jazz, they are also described as the varieties of jazz. Though these music genres are connected, they reflect more differences than similarities. Weissman (2006) points to the blue notes as the basic similarity between ragtime and blues. Flatting the third and the seventh notes of the classical scale has affected further development of blues. Innovations produced an infinite number of variations which have vastly affected contemporary music, namely rap, rock, jazz, soul, and rhythm and blues. Invention of the blues elements is crucial in developing and popularizing modern musical styles. Developing alongside blues in the distant 1890s, ragtime as a sophisticated music is widely associated with solo piano. Ragtime refers to the body of compositions and adds embellishing melodies which are well-known today as “ragging” (Burnim & Maultsby, 2006). Associated with the dance form accompanied by music, artists originally played ragtime in brothels and bars, but the musical genre gained respect when individuals started to write down and publish it. Since many wealthy families had piano, this musical instrument helped to disseminate ragtime in the course of time.

Many individuals describe blues and ragtime as the music styles that established jazz. Initially, they were quite popular among African-Americans because of the African background of jazz. Ragtime is the U.S. vernacular music with the dance elements and syncopated melody against smooth accompaniment. It does not resemble any other music genre because of the toe-tapping vitality, subtle complexity, and fragile beauty. Though ragtime is based on the orthodox harmony, no one can fully predict it. Its appeal and charm went beyond the place of ragtime. Blues that emerged as a new form of the folk music at the same time started to coalesce into a 12-bar pattern. Even today, in the 21st century, it remains largely unchanged. While ragtime produces unique improvisation and syncopation, blues applies three-line verses performed in universal and simple AAB rhyming pattern that is still adaptive to the collaborative songwriting (Smith & Palmisano, 2000). Blues displays a harmonic quality of sound which is different from the pop music.

The personal experience of composers and musicians affects and reflects the basic features of the music style. Ragtime had dominated the U.S. popular music for almost two decades since 1890s to 1910s. During that time, Scott Joplin, who later became the eminent and talented pianist to ragtime, was born in the African-American household in Texas. His father was a slave. Since the age of seven, Joplin started to play piano and received education, experience, and skills from the famous professor Weiss, who introduced him to classical and folk music (Barkley & Texas State Historical Association, 2003). As a result, the combination of folk and classical music with the African motives in the Joplin’s performances not only formed ragtime as a unique music genre, but served as an idea for the future development of jazz. During his lifetime, the eminent composer attained success in the small city called Sedalia that is located in the state of Missouri. The performer witnessed the process of music making in this town that also offered opportunities for him to work as a creative performer. It was also a town where the artist found appreciation and congenial colleagues. Therefore, Sedalia is now well-known as the home of ragtime.

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Ragtime is based on the African rhythms and the performances of the U.S. music using the African instruments. Though ragtime can be played on other instruments, many artists use the piano. The originator of ragtime Scott Joplin played syncopations on banjo and wrote them for performing on piano. The mix of his knowledge of African and classical music helped Joplin to form ragtime. Because of the complicated piano syncopations and amazing rhythms, ragtime as a type of music became more and more popular since its emergence in the 1890s.

Ragtime can be deemed as an antecedent to jazz despite the fact that both genres developed in parallel. Jazz emerged in the beginning of the 21st century in New Orleans. Charles Joyner (2006) described this city as a crossroads of different music styles and traditions with the streets full of white and African American immigrants from the countryside. For the first time, they faced with the cosmopolitan blend of African and European musical traditions in the city. While the mix of cultures served as a ground for the new directions, jazz originated as a meeting of blues of the lower society class with the mixed population of New Orleans.

The early performers of ragtime and blues eventually provided the transition into jazz. The blues singer Bessie Smith is mentioned as the early innovator that made the distinction between jazz and blues blurry. The four-note structure that blues contains also produces jazz. The artists and musicians inspired by jazz particularly prize the four note figure. The motif of the composition is principal for blues.

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Blues and ragtime were similar because of their African American background. Ragtime is the unique genre where one can detect the impact of the African American music. African Americans with their genius, creativity, and talent greatly contributed to the development of ragtime. Although ragtime and blues are similar in some aspects, they are different because ragtime has no relation to blues. The blues themes are usually expressed in jazz that borrows the violin theme of blues, where the main chords are performed in the third degree. Melodically, it borrows nothing from blues except for a timid involuntary tone during the presentation of the violin theme. Some blues notes can be reflected in ragtime. However, they are not expressive and played with other sounds that move the music away from the intrinsic nature of blues.

Various music styles have influenced the development of jazz, but ragtime and blues played a crucial role in propelling jazz to a new path. Despite the fact that blues and ragtime have similarities being forerunners of jazz, these two music styles have many features that distinguish them from each other, namely the musical technique that each genre focuses on, the origin of music, and either vocal or instrumental style. The most important similarity between these two genres is that ragtime as well as blues was significant in the development of jazz as well as numerous modern directions. There is no doubt that these genres affected jazz in different ways, but both were the unique musical styles of the distant 1800’s.


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