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Ragtimify: How to Turn Any Song into Ragtime and Stride Piano
1st Edition
© 2013 by Scott Bradlee
Cover by Anthony Zhang
HOW I LEARNED TO PLAY RAGTIME .............................................................4
THE BIG IDEA. .......................................................................................................5
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT RAGTIME ..............................6
THE LEFT HAND ...................................................................................................7
THE RIGHT HAND ..............................................................................................12
PUTTING BOTH HANDS TOGETHER............................................................15
GETTIN’ FANCY WITH THE LEFT HAND .....................................................20
HOW TO PRACTICE FANCY LEFT HAND VARIATIONS............................23
GETTIN’ FANCY WITH THE RIGHT HAND ..................................................23
HOW TO PLAY WITH A SWING .......................................................................29
SHOP” .....................................................................................................................36
BEAT .......................................................................................................................44
A FEW WORDS ON EAR TRAINING................................................................45
REAL TALK ABOUT GOING TO COLLEGE FOR MUSIC ..........................48
CLOSING THOUGHTS .......................................................................................50
I was a terrible piano student when I was a kid.
Each week, my well-intentioned teacher required me to fill out a daily practice log, to
keep track of how much I practiced. It soon became something of a ritual that I would fill this
out with fictitious amounts on the car ride to my piano lesson – even going as far as switching
between pen and pencil -- in an attempt to conceal the fact that I never practiced. These lessons
lasted until I was 12, when my piano teacher notified my parents that her schedule was (a bit
conveniently) filled up, and that she was unable to continue teaching me.
It was that summer that I discovered George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and from
there, the sound of ragtime piano. This was the kind of piano playing that my adolescent self
could relate to: loud, brash, and with plenty of contempt for rules. I became determined to learn
how to play this style, no matter how many hours is took. My parents were confused.
The piano score for “Rhapsody in Blue” was well beyond my technical skill level, but I
persevered, hour after hour, attempting to get things to sound right. I was able to read music –
albeit slowly- and began to notice the sounds created by different combinations of notes. By the
end of the twenty-some odd pages, I may not have been able to play the piece at anything
resembling performance level, but I did figure out how to make cool blues-y sounds and play a
simple ragtime left hand. That was enough positive feedback to give me the confidence to stick
with piano.
I built upon that foundation by working through a book of rags by composer Scott Joplin,
which taught me the fundamentals of ragtime: a stride left hand and a syncopated right hand.
From there, I discovered jazz piano works by Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, and Fats
Waller. When there was no sheet music to be had, I would borrow cassettes and CDs from the
county library and try to pick out individual phrases by ear. I was teaching myself technique,
music theory, and ear training, all at once and completely by accident.
It was a time consuming process, but it managed to pay off some fifteen years later, when
I uploaded a ragtime medley of 80’s pop songs to YouTube and had my very first viral video.
Soon after, I was tapped to create ragtime versions of popular songs for the game Bioshock Infinite.
I realized that even in the digital age, there is still a demand for these “old” styles of music. My
hope is that by applying them to modern songs, a whole new generation will come to discover
and contribute to these timeless genres.
I decided to write this course for my 12 year old self- someone with basic piano skills and
a motivation to learn something new. As such, I’ll be assuming that you have a year or two of
piano playing already under your belt; if you’re completely new to piano, you should definitely
learn the basics first before starting this course. I’ve also designed this course to have something
for every skill level; although we’ll be starting with some pretty basic stuff, we’ll be playing pretty
difficult music by the end. My goal was to create a reference book that could last a lifetime (or as
long as e-books remain readable).
In the pages that follow, we’ll be examining the inner workings of ragtime and stride
piano, transforming a bunch of popular tunes into ragtime, and discussing ear training and
improvisation techniques. I’m going to cover a lot of stuff, but I’m going to avoid getting too
technical; it’s not meant to be an exhaustive, graduate-level tome on all things ragtime. I simply
want to give you the tools you need to experiment on your own, so that you can learn this music
in the most organic way possible.
So, let’s down to it.
If a song has a melody and chords, it can be made into ragtime. Or doo wop, for that
matter. Or disco. Or dubstep.
Sure, some songs will sound more appropriate in some genres rather than others, but the
BIG IDEA is that songs don’t have to be in any genre in particular. Genre is something you do to a
song- not a box in which a song remains forever trapped. I have an entire YouTube channel (first
of several shameless plugs: devoted to this idea—
that’s how strongly I believe it to be true.
If you know how to play the melody of a song and the chords that accompany the
melody, you can interpret in any style that you wish. That’s your privilege as a performer.
However, as the title of this book may suggest, we are going to stick with turning songs
into ragtime - a style of music that was originally written specifically for the piano, at a time when
the piano was the centerpiece of the 19th century home entertainment system, and the sweet
sounds of syncopation poured forth from every saloon…every saloon…saloon…
(cue the dream sequence music)
Hold on- before we start, we should stop to discuss some common questions. After all, I’ve
always wanted to write a “Frequently Asked Questions” chapter…
“Ragtime” piano, “Stride” piano, “Novelty” piano, “New Orleans” piano – what’s the
difference?? Pretty subtle ones, for the most part. In fact, I won’t even address them in this
guide- there are plenty of resources on the internet (and YouTube comment threads) that explain
the distinguishing features of each subgenre. To keep things simple, we are going to call it all
“ragtime” (sorry to offend the purists!), since all share the same fundamental characteristics: a
“stride” left hand and a syncopated right hand.
A stride left hand alternates between bass notes and chords to simulate the “oom-pah”
sound of marching bands. This is the probably most recognizable feature of ragtime piano.
Syncopation is the effect that comes from putting accented notes on the offbeats- the
“unexpected” beats. It’s a little hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you hear it.
Syncopation first became widespread in ragtime music, but can be heard in practically every style
of popular music since then- it’s especially common in electronic dance music today.
Syncopation in ragtime piano is a bit difficult to get use to at first- it feels as though the right
hand is off beat from the left hand.
The first step is to take the chords of a song and use them to build a stride left hand.
Think of the chords to a song as the building blocks of the left hand - you’ll always be starting
with them. You can find the chords to pretty much any song online by searching “[name of
song] chords.”
The next step is to take the melody of the song and add some syncopation, so that some
of the notes land on off beats and some notes land on on beats. We’ll talk more about what that
means later.
From there, it’s simply a matter of coordination and practice. As you get comfortable
with the basics, you’ll be able to add small embellishments and variations here and there, which
eventually will lead to true improvisation; that’s where things really get interesting.
I’ll be uncovering the inner mechanics of ragtime piano for you in the form of short, easy
excerpts that are designed to teach a particular technique. If you’ve downloaded this onto an ereader or mobile phone, the sheet music may be a bit too small to read easily-- I recommend
downloading this onto your computer or printing it out, like we did way back in the 20th century.
For the best results, take time to really observe how every chord, rhythmic pattern, and right
hand embellishment is constructed within each excerpt. For instance, you may like the way a
particular right hand pattern sounds. Don’t just memorize it! Find out why it sounds that way,
and then take this knowledge and add it to your metaphorical ragtime toolkit, so you can use it in
any song that you like.
Ok! Let’s get our hands dirty (not literally) and begin.
The left hand’s job is to keep a steady pulse and also communicate the chords of the song.
It is your rhythm section; the foundation of everything you play. It’s also going to be the most
frustrating and least fun part to learn.
Much of the difficulty comes from the fact that a stride left hand jumps around a lot,
moving nonstop from low register bass notes to middle register chords. The only way to get used
to making these jumps is to practice them regularly, understanding that it’s going to take a bit of
time for the muscle memory to develop.
Now, let’s begin with a simple chord progression and figure out how to turn it into a
ragtime left hand pattern. Let’s start with a good ol’ fashioned C chord – with the notes C, E,
and G.
Hopefully, you already know how to create an inversion, but if not, here’s how: take the
root position chord ( C, E, and G, with the C on the bottom) and switch the order of the notes so
that the middle note is on the bottom ( E, G, and C, in our example). That’s called a “1st
Now, repeat the process so that the middle note of the first inversion is on the bottom (G,
C, and E, in our example). That’s your “2nd inversion.”
If you have a chord with three notes, there are only two inversions- if you invert the
second inversion, you once again wind up in root position (C, E, and G).
Notice that all these inversions sound pretty much the same- they’re all using the same
notes, after all. The reason we use them in the left hand is because chords sound the best in the
middle register of the piano, and sometimes we need to invert a chord to get it to sound good
without getting in the way of the right hand.
So, in our case, let’s say that the C chord sounds best in 1st inversion (G, C, and E). This
is going to be the chord inversion that we use in our left hand; now we just need to figure out the
bass notes.
Each individual note in a chord has a name, related to its degree in the corresponding
scale. Don’t worry about understanding all that for now; just know that we call the C in the C
chord (remember: C, E, G) the root; the E the third; and the G the fifth.
(Quick ‘n easy formula for building a major triad in root position: the distance between
the root and third is always four half steps, and the distance between the third and fifth is always
three half steps. For minor triads: flip the distances, so it becomes three half steps/ four half
steps. Still, it’s A LOT easier to memorize the notes in each chord).
The bass lines in ragtime and other related genres usually consist of alternating roots and
fifths. Here’s an example of that:
So, if we have a measure with 4 beats, we’ll create the ragtime stride left hand by putting
the root on beat 1, the fifth on beat 3, and the three note chord on beats 2 and 4.
This is the fundamental design of a ragtime left hand. You’ll notice that it involves a lot
of jumping, and at first it is quite difficult to play accurately (Actually, it’s always difficult to play
accurately when you get it up to speed!). You’ll want to practice it slowly at first- the way to
develop the requisite muscle memory is to practice slowly and accurately. When I was started, I
wanted to play everything fast right away, and this led to me developing bad habits and having to
spend years unlearning certain things. Don’t do that! I’ll give some tips for practicing later on.
Once you feel comfortable with this passage, it’s time to introduce a new chord to our
song. Let’s put in a G7 chord, which contains G, B, D, F.
This chord has four notes, which means there are three inversions; first inversion (B, D,
F, G):
Second inversion (D, F, G, B):
And third inversion (F, G, B, D):
Again, we want to pick the inversion that places the chord near the middle of the
keyboard, where it sounds best. In the case, we’re going to use the third inversion (F, G, B, D):
As we did before, we’re going to use the root (G) and the fifth (D) of the chord as our bass
notes- only this time, let’s put the fifth (D) on beat 1 and the root (G) on beat 3:
When we pair it with the previous measure, we wind up with this:
As classic a ragtime left hand as there ever was. Let’s not stop there, though; let’s add an
A minor chord (A, C, ad E) to the mix.
We could use a first inversion (C, E, A) or a second inversion (E, A C), but in this case,
root position puts us right in the middle of the keyboard- right where the chord sounds best:
Again, we’ll put the chords on beats 2 and 4, and put the root (A) on beat 1 and the fifth
on beat 3, winding up with this:
Let’s double this measure just for the heck of it, and add it to the previous two:
It’s a start! Just to recap, we took the chord progression C – G – Am – Am and turned it
into a ragtime left hand by alternating the chords (beats 2 & 4) with bass notes (1 &3). We now
have a foundation on which we can place a right hand melody - let’s turn our attention to the
right hand and make it happen.
The right hand is responsible for most, if not all of, the syncopation in a ragtime piano
piece. Syncopation is what gives ragtime the interesting rhythmic component that is usually not
present in classical music and earlier styles. In addition, the right hand communicates most of
the melodic material in a song. It’s a lot to think about, but we’ll take things slow.
For starters, let’s take a very simple three note phrase, made up of the notes C, D, and E.
Now, let’s split up the whole notes into a quarter note pattern:
This still isn’t syncopated, but it’s getting warmer. To make it syncopated, we’ll need to
place some accented notes on the off beats- let me explain what I mean by that.
In a typical measure in 4/4 time, there are four beats- all quarter notes (since there are
four quarters to a whole): 1 2 3 4. Now, suppose we want to divide these beats in half and count
a measure of eighth notes. We’d then wind up with 8 beats, which we can count as 1-and-2and-3-and-4-and.
Each and is considered an offbeat, since it falls between the quarter note pulse. So, by
placing notes on the and beats, we can start to add syncopation. Here’s an example - if you have
trouble with it, it may help to speak the count written above the staff out loud:
Let’s try another basic syncopated pattern based on that three note phrase- notice which
notes fall on offbeats:
So, the recipe for a syncopated right hand is to let some accents fall on the on-beats and
some accents fall on the off-beats. Mixing the rhythm up in this manner is what gives ragtime its
characteristic sound.
Of course, playing syncopation with just one note is bound to get boring eventually, so
let’s add some variation to our three note syncopated phrase. Back when ragtime came into
existence, the banjo was a very popular American instrument. As a result, the ragtime right hand
figures were based on banjo picking patterns. Here’s one example:
Notice that the notes we used once again come from the C chord (C, E, G), only we
arranged it so that the C (the note in the melody) is on the top. In general, when we play a chord
in the right hand, we tend to hear the top note the strongest; that’s why we place the melody note
up top.
Let’s take this syncopated figure and apply it to each measure of our three note phrase:
This is a basic example, but syncopation can be a bit subtle at times. Take this figure, for
instance- another banjo inspired one:
Although it may not appear to be syncopated at first, we psychologically interpret the
accents to fall on a weak beat- the and of beat 3- due to the construction of the pattern (don’t
worry about that part). Applied to our three note phrase and with accents added in, we get:
Now, let’s put both hands together for some real ragtime goodness.
In theory, it makes a lot of sense to isolate both hands and practice both separately before
joining them. In practice, though, you’ll find that working each hand separately does little to
develop the coordination needed to play syncopated music. In fact, the parts you practice
separately are likely to fall apart when you put them together for the first time. This is normal,
and we’ll work past this.
Let’s take our three note melody and combine it with the stride left hand from before.
Putting it together, we get this:
The simplicity of the right hand allows us to focus fully on the stride left hand, which
tends to need a lot of attention. This should be fairly easy for now, if you’ve practiced the left
hand for awhile.
Next, we’ll split the right hand into quarter notes, as we did before. We’ll also invert the
A minor chord into 2nd inversion in the last measure, just for fun (ok, maybe that’s not your idea
of fun) :
This still isn’t syncopated, but it may take more concentration to play correctly. Notice
where the notes in each hand line up, and play those parts slowly.
Now, let’s add some basic syncopation, as we did before.
This is where things get tricky. It’s important that you focus on which hand plays when
during the syncopated bits, before you attempt to play it in a steady tempo. Luckily for us, the
printed music places each note that sounds on an off beat in between the left hand notes, so it
should be easy to figure out when each note is supposed to sound. Take it one beat at a time until
your muscle memory adjusts to playing two quite different rhythms in each hand. It’s not unlike
learning to play drums; in fact, you may find this to be easier if you already play a percussion
instrument. If you’re struggling to get the notes to sound in the correct order, go even slower.
In case you missed it, that was our first complete ragtime passage- congratulations! Notice
that by practicing this one phrase, you are actually practicing many different things at once. On
the surface, you are learning to play the actual passage, which can be used as a cool party trick to
prove that you can play at least four measures of ragtime. On a deeper level, you are also
practicing the coordination between hands that is necessary to play syncopated music.
Additionally, you are practicing the stride left hand and getting used to gauging the distance
between bass notes and chords, as well as practicing the chords (and their inversions) themselves.
Lastly, you’re learning how to put together all of the above, so that you can write (or improvise)
your own ragtime pieces. Pretty heavy stuff for four measures!
Let’s keep going and expand upon our first ragtime passage by introducing the banjo-like
figure from before. Again, I’ve labeled the off beats (pro tip: a tied pair of notes in the middle of
a measure is usually syncopated).
Once again, take it one beat at a time and pay attention to which notes come at the same
time. This passage will be more difficult, since it involves a lot more right hand notes, but the
basic coordination between hands remains the same. Once you master this phrase, you’ll begin
to commit this coordination to memory, which will allow you to learn other similar passages
much quicker.
Again, we’ll take our more elaborate banjo-style figure and apply it to our example – this
time, with an added right hand harmony.
By now, you’ve encountered all the basic elements of ragtime piano. Mastering the style
comes from applying these fundamental concepts to a wide variety of situations over time. Let’s
extend this phrase some more, so our chord progression becomes C-G7-A minor-A minor-G
[G,B,D,] -D minor [D,F,A]-A minor-A minor. As you play through it, see if you can recognize a
classic rock tune in there somewhere.
If you haven’t picked up on it, we’ve been Ragtimify-ing “Dust in the Wind,” by Kansasa song that shares that very same chord progression. To recap the process of turning a song into
1) Take the chord progression of the song you want to transform.
2) Invert (“change the order of ”) the chords in your left so that they fall in the center of
the keyboard, where they sound best.
3) Create a stride left hand by alternating low notes (the root and fifth on beats 1 & 3)
with the chords (on beat 2 & 4).
4) Introduce syncopation into the melody of the song.
5) Profit. (Maybe.)
There you have it- our first song. Now we can abandon our ragtime training wheels and
get into some serious business.
You hopefully already know that you can’t learn ragtime piano just by reading a book
(sorry if I disappointed anyone). This book is meant as a guide to give you all the tools you need
to get started, and to hopefully inspire you to experiment on your own. However, this book can’t
physically practice the piano for you, and I probably won’t have enough time in my schedule to
call you and remind you to practice. When it comes down to actually sitting at the piano and
figuring things out, it’s all up to you.
The honest truth about learning to play ragtime is that it’s incredibly frustrating at first.
You will have take things at a painfully slow tempo where nothing sounds good. You will spend
hours practicing those left hand jumps and still hit wrong notes. You will start to doubt if it’s
even possible to learn to play this style. I know all of this, because I’ve been there.
The good news is that with consistent, careful practice, you are guaranteed to improve.
This is true not just of ragtime piano, but also of practically everything in life. The catch is that
improvements don’t always happen on a linear time scale. You may experience great gains in the
first two weeks, and then plateau for two months. You may be tempted to quit at this point, but
don’t. Trust in the fact that you will improve with time, as long as you stay consistent with your
practicing. End rant.
Now, the more practical question remains: what do I practice? And for how long?
Start by practicing the brief exercises in the previous chapter until they become second
nature to you. Even though the excerpts are short, each one of them is jam packed with
fundamental ragtime technique. Take your time with them and really analyze them to figure out
why they sound the way they do.
Then, divide your practice time into three parts: Technique, Application, and
“Technique” in this case means working on the coordination between the right and left
hand, and also practicing the basics, such as scales and chords. You should also spend some time
getting used to playing different chord progressions in different keys. Try transposing (playing in a
different key) the excerpts for an added challenge.
The “Application” section of your practice time should be spending playing songs. I
recommend supplementing this book with sheet music by Scott Joplin- the most famous
composer of piano rags. You’ve probably already heard or played “The Entertainer”; this piece
is worth learning not just because it’s an excellent demonstration of the vocabulary of ragtime,
but because everyone will request that you play it (you may want to learn Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”
for the same reason). Joplin’s other famous piece, “Maple Leaf Rag,” is more difficult, but also
highly recommended - both are currently available online at:
cgibin/piece-info.cgi?id=263 and,
“Experimentation” means just that. Literally, “play” at the piano- try coming up with
your own melodies and chord progressions, figuring out songs by ear (more on that later), and
coming up with your own variations on other songs (more on that in the coming chapter). The
only way to truly master ragtime is to understand it enough to create your own ragtime
arrangements, and the best way to learn how to do this is to experiment on your own, using the
previously mentioned guidelines:
1) Take the chord progression of the song you want to transform.
2) Invert (“change the order of ”) the chords in your left so that they fall in the center of
the keyboard, where they sound best.
3) Create a stride left hand by alternating low notes (the root and fifth on beats 1 & 3)
with the chords (on beat 2 & 4).
4) Introduce syncopation into the melody of the song.
Start with a simple tune like “London Bridge” (the children’s song, not the Fergie song) -literally, Google “London Bridge Chords” and pull up one of the first pages. Don’t worry if the
chords are meant for guitar; a chord is a chord. Go through the steps I listed, and experiment
with transforming the song into ragtime. There isn’t any one correct way to do this, so do
whatever sounds good to you.
You’ll find that being forced to figure things out in this manner will teach you
much more about music than simply playing sheet music. When you create your own music, you
get a glimpse of the inner workings that are typically hidden from the listener and gradually learn
the formulas for creating the kind of sounds you want on command.
As for how long to practice… that’s up to you. (everyone hates that answer). The most
important part is that you practice consistently- if possible, every day. Of course, you’ll improve
quicker if you spend an hour a day instead of 15 minutes a day, but 15 minutes of careful
practice will still allow you to improve. I’d also suggest breaking up your practice sessions
throughout the day, to allow yourself some time to process what you’ve practiced so far and to
prevent fatigue.
I’m personally a fan of recording myself while practicing (I have a YouTube channel, so
that shouldn’t be surprising). Listening back to recordings of your playing allows you to keep
track of your progress and to identify areas that might need extra work. Back in my day, I had to
bring a tape recorder with me to the practice room. Nowadays, a mobile phone is all you need.
Sometimes, you may find yourself getting frustrated with a passage that just won’t come
out sounding right. You may even be on the verge of giving up. I want to assure you that you can
learn to play this, and that a major breakthrough often follows these periods of frustration. If
you find yourself in a rut, don’t panic. Keep at it, remain calm, and don’t give up. Because I’m
never gonna give you up.
We’ve now touched on all the fundamentals of learning to play ragtime, and I’ve
successfully ragtime rickrolled my readership. Next, let’s go into more detail about some of the
variations we can use in both hands to create interesting effects.
The left hand we used in the previous example is a very basic, versatile stride pattern.
That’s not to say it’s the only game in town, however. Let’s figure out some different options for
the left hand.
The most obvious variation is to play octaves that alternate with the chords, instead of
single bass notes. In fact, this used to be the rule, rather than the exception: most of Scott
Joplin’s rags call for octaves in the left hand. If we were to make a stride pattern with octaves out
of an F chord, it would look like this:
This may be significantly more difficult at first, since the distance you’ll have to jump is
much larger. If you’re on the younger side and having trouble reaching the octaves, you can wait
a couple of years- it’ll likely be much easier then- or simple “roll” the octave by playing the
bottom note and the top note in succession. This can also be used for effect- it sounds a bit like
plucking a stringed instrument.
Let’s take a new chord progression: F [F,A,C] – C7 [C,E,G,Bb] – Dm [D,F,A] – Bb [Bb,
D, F]. Again, we’ll pick the inversions that put us close to the middle of the keyboard. Don’t
forget that B is always flat, according to the key signature.
Once again, we’ll use the root and fifth from each chord as our bass notes:
Let’s turn those bass notes into octaves. Notice the full sound they produce:
Octaves are also great for building “walking” bass lines- bass lines where different bass
notes happen on each beat. Let’s introduce a walking bass element at the end of the second
In this case, the C# acts as a passing tone- a note that connects two chord tones. In this
case, it connects the C octave (in the C7 chord) to the D octave (in the Dm chord). This is a small
detail, but a passing tone can provide a nice break from the continuous stride pattern of ragtime.
Now, let’s add a simple right hand melody to this pattern:
If this passage sounds familiar, you may have taken the Midnight Train to Anywhere at
some point in your life. Let’s add another passing tone to the left hand:
Now, we’re beginning to see the possibilities of the left hand as an accompaniment. Not
only are we using our left hand to keep rhythm and provide the chords of the song, but we are
also using it as a voice by providing a walking countermelody to the right hand. This is going to
become a key concept when we talk about applying the stride left hand to styles outside of
ragtime, too.
The melody we’ve been using is already syncopated, but let’s embellish it a bit
with some common ragtime phrases.
You, too, can ragtimify hits by Journey. Don’t stop believin’.
Your first goal is to get used to playing octaves in the left hand (again, only if you can
comfortably reach them. Don’t hurt your hand- injuring your hands is a pretty ineffective way to
learn ragtime piano, in general). Practice making the jump from an octave to a chord, and then
back to an octave. Try this in a variety of keys and with a variety of chord progressions- for
example, try using the chord progression C – F – G and then try it a whole step up with D – G –
A, and so forth. For example:
Once you’re comfortable, begin to experiment with adding simple right hand melodies, so
that you can further develop the coordination between hands. Then, experiment with adding
octaves and walking bass patterns to some of the earlier excerpts in the book. You may find that
playing octaves in the bass actually turns out to be easier than playing single notes, once you get
used to them. Most of the classic Joplin rags were originally written with octaves in the left hand,
so once again, I recommend playing through a few of those to build left hand technique.
For more advanced left hand work, check out some piano pieces by Eubie Blake - in
particular, “Charleston Rag,” a piece chock full o’ walking bass lines. For inspiration, search
“Eubie Blake” on YouTube and watch the performance of him playing “Charleston Rag” the
age of 97.
As we mentioned before, a lot of the right hand figures in ragtime originally come from
banjo music. As ragtime grew in popularity, thanks to mechanical player pianos and western
saloons, pianists began to create their own right hand patterns- commonly called “licks”- that
were especially well-suited for the piano. Let’s highlight a few examples with the melody of
“Twinkle, Twinkle,” in the key of G (with one sharp):
First, let’s harmonize each note of the melody by adding notes from each chord to the
melody note. For example, we’ll add G and B to the second measure melody to get a G triad
(G,B,D). As we did before, we’ll keep the melody note as the top note of each chord. We’ll leave
out any right hand harmonies that might get in the way of the left hand.
Next, let’s look at a banjo-style variation of the melody:
We still have the melody note at the top of most of the chords, but now we’ve pulled
apart the chords and put some of the other harmony notes in between. Not only that, but we’ve
done so in a syncopated manner. At this point, you can probably identify the syncopated parts
just by looking at them.
This next variation, based on two note chords and grace notes, sounds especially ragtimey when played with a tremolo on the chords marked with three lines. A tremolo is a shaking
effect that occurs when one plays the two notes of each chord in alternation, very fast, and was a
very common effect in player piano music. The chromatic grace note patterns that introduce
these tremolos give an expressive quality to this passage, which sounds a bit like a singer singing
with vibrato.
Speaking of expressive qualities, here’s a blues-y variation. Notice that there are some
very dissonance notes in the right hand that seem to clash with the left hand, particularly when
played slowly. Don’t worry, you’re not doing it wrong! This type of dissonance is termed a “blue”
note, and is kind of the piano equivalent of a blues guitarist bending a string. Blue notes add a
earthy, human quality to a passage when used correctly, and became widely adopted by jazz and
boogie woogie pianists in the early 20th century. In the key of G, we get the blue note by playing
an A# (or Bb) and a B (the 3rd of the chord) at nearly the same time.
Notice the blues-y harmonized sixths in the 1st, 3rd, and 7th measures. Playing a note a
sixth below the melody note is a fairly reliable way to create a harmony line- not just in ragtime,
but in all music. Playing a note a third above the melody also accomplishes the same thing.
Now, let’s try experimenting with some thicker sounds in the melody. We’ll start by
playing the melody in octaves:
The key thing to remember about octaves is that the top and bottom notes are always the
same distance; just keep your thumb and pinky at the same distance and they’ll be easy to move
Next, we’ll harmonize each octave to get an even fuller sound. In this case, we’ll add two
notes in the middle of each octave, depending on the chord that we play in the left hand. For
example, since we begin with a G chord (G, B, D), we’ll add a B and a D into the first octave to
create a nice 4 note chord. You really have to stretch your hand to play these chords – I prefer to
use my thumb, index, middle, and pinky to play them.
We can introduce syncopation into this variation by splitting each chord up into a bottom
note (played with the thumb) and a top triad (a three-note chord, played with the index, middle,
and pinky fingers), and alternating between both parts in a rhythmic fashion. This is a lot easier
to show than describe….
If you listen closely, you can still hear the four note chords that we employed to thicken
the melody. However, by splitting the chords up in this manner, we’ve created an opportunity to
syncopate the melody and use those chords in a purely rhythmic manner. The rhythms I chose
are largely arbitrary; you can experiment with syncopating the right hand differently by putting
the notes on different beats.
There’s no real “formula” to the examples that I presented, but if you analyze them
closely, you’ll be able to see which combinations of notes produced which sounds - and that’s the
most important part. Once you figure out how to produce certain sounds, you’ll be able to
sprinkle these effects into any song you wish. Adding subtle embellishments and variations to a
melody is the first step towards learning how to improvise at the piano.
Once you work through “Twinkle, Twinkle,” try your hand at inventing your own right
hand variations for the earlier excerpts, leaving out the left hand at first. A good way to start
would be by taking the variations we used for “Twinkle, Twinkle” and applying them to the
other songs. In this case, “applying” them means that we’re taking the main idea of each variation
– not necessarily the notes themselves. For example, you might go back to “Dust in the Wind”
and try using octaves in the melody, or find a spot to slip in a grace note or two. At first, this is
going to require a lot of thought, and you might feel like you have no idea where to begin. This
is normal when you are learning to improvise for the first time. Let your ears be your guide, and
allow yourself the freedom to mess up (spoiler alert: you will). It’s important that you let yourself
make a ton of mistakes early on so that you can learn to avoid making them in the future.
However, there is a trick to avoid hitting “wrong” notes when improvising: stick to using
the notes in each chord (meaning the chord symbol notated above the staff; that’s why it’s so
important to learn all the chords you can). This may get old after awhile, but if you stick to the
notes in the chords, there is no way that the notes that you play will sound bad. Additionally, the
more chords and inversion you encounter, the more comfortable you’ll be with ad-libbing right
hand variations- otherwise known as “improvising.” Another fringe benefit- and a pretty
significant one, at that- is that you’ll start to teach your ears to recognize common chord
progressions, which will help you to learn new songs quicker.
When improvising in this manner, you shouldn’t have to concentrate too much on the
note choices- you only have three or four of the per chord, after all- so most of your focus should
be on ensuring that each measure still gets the right number of beats. Improvising is one thing;
improvising in time is another thing altogether, and you may have to spend awhile on this.
Once you’re able to easily improvise on the notes in each chord, you can begin to branch
out and include other notes in the variations you invent. The easiest way to start doing this is
through the use of neighboring tones - notes that are only a half- or whole-step away from a chord
tone - that resolve into chord tones. For instance, here’s “Twinkle, Twinkle” again- this time with
neighboring tones added- notice that all of them come before and after a melody note:
I briefly mentioned passing tones in the chapter that dealt with variations on the left hand
stride pattern, but I’ll bring them up again, since they can also be used in the right hand. To
recap: passing tones are the notes that come between two chord tones - the notes you pass through
to get to your destination note. In ragtime, chromatic (based on half-steps) passing tones are very
popular melodic devices- in fact, you probably know one from the beginning of “The
Chromatic passing tones can easily be added as grace notes before a chord or octave
(remember the grace note examples from the previous chapter?). They’re used quite a bit in jazz
improvisation, but that’s a whole other story. For now, experiment with chromatic notes to find
what sounds good to you.
Improvising with non-chord tones - even neighboring and passing tones - is tricky
business, so don’t worry if you’re having trouble creating variations that use them. If you’re
feeling lost, remember that you can always return home by playing the notes in the chords. Don’t
get lost over-thinking the theory! As the Talking Heads said in “Naive Melody,” “The less we say
about the better / Make it up as we go along.” And so it is with ragtime, too.
This is a good time to talk about the concept of swung – as opposed to “straight” – eighth
notes. You probably already have an idea of what it means to play with a swing, but if not, I’ll
try my best.
The right hand part in the above excerpt is made up of “straight” eighth notes- each one
has the same time value and is played for exactly an eighth of a measure. Most early ragtime,
including Scott Joplin rags, is played this way. The rhythm is strict and march-like, and is played
exactly as written. It’s really not any different than playing classical music.
Here’s the same example written with a different feel:
This time, the right hand replaces the straight eighth notes with dotted eight/ sixteenth
note pairs. In this case, the first note in a pair is held longer (three times longer, to be exact) than
the second. It has kind of a lilting feeling, like an Irish folk song or maybe even a poem in Iambic
Pentameter (don’t quote me on that one, I’m just trying to find a way to use the jargon I learned
in my high school Shakespeare class). This rhythm is typical of very early piano novelty pieces
from the 1910s and early 1920s. It’s too stiff to be considered swung, but close.
Now, here’s the most “jazzy” version of this iconic 80’s riff:
These are “swung” eighth notes. Again, the first note in a pair is held longer than the
second, but this time the proportions are different. As we can see from the triplet bracket, the
first note occupies two thirds of a beat and the second note (which is slightly accented) occupies
the last third. Confused? Don’t worry about it, because swing isn’t something you notate,
anyway- it’s something you feel. If you want to make any of the examples in this course more
“jazzy,” try playing swung eighth notes in place of the notated straight eighth notes. For
simplicity’s sake, however, I’ll continue to notate even eighth notes in all the examples, and leave
it up to you to interpret.
The theme song from Tetris is actually a 19th century Russian folk song called
Korobeiniki…or at least that’s what Wikipedia tells me. I just know it as the song that accompanied
many hours of time wasted in my childhood. Sometimes, I hear echoes of it in my head when
I’m strategically packing my car with gear before a gig.
It makes sense, then, that I performed a ragtime mashup of this piece and Avicii’s
“Levels” on my YouTube channel, and I thought I’d share an arrangement of the main theme
with you. You can watch my improvisation on it here:
The song is rather simple and contains only three chords: E7 (E, G#, B, D), Am (A, C, E)
and Dm (D, F, A). It’s a perfect beginning piece to ragtimify, and has the added bonus of
instantly evoking nostalgia in many folks born in the ‘80s (myself included).
This time, let’s look at the melody first to figure out the chord changes, which are notated
above each note.
There’s no syncopation in the melody, but we’ll leave it as is for now. Instead, let’s start
constructing a left hand part out of the chords. As always, we’ll first put the chords near the
middle of the keyboard:
Then, we’ll figure out the low bass notes to use for each chord- let’s again use the root and
the fifth for each. That gives us E and B for E7, A and E for Am, and D and A for Dm. When
we pair these bass notes with the chords, we get this basic left hand pattern:
Now, let’s place the right hand melody over this left hand pattern. Since there isn’t any
syncopation yet, this will in fact sound like a 19th century Russian folk song. If you don’t really
care about ragtime and got this book just to learn the Tetris theme, here it is:
To syncopate the melody, we’ll change the rhythm of the right hand part so that some of
the accents fall on the weak beats, using the “Charleston” rhythm as a starting point (two dotted
quarter notes, followed by a quarter note). Be sure to count this one carefully! It helps to
determine the order in which the left hand and right hand play first- sometimes, they sound
together, sometimes the right hand may sound before the left, and so on. I also added a walking
bass line midway through.
The result is a ragtime take on the “Tetris” theme that would not be out of place in a
Wild West saloon (perhaps played while stacking barrels of whiskey?). If this is too easy for you,
the following page features a more complex variation on the theme that uses some common
ragtime and stride piano licks. Take note of how some of these patterns are constructed so that
you can experiment with adding them to other songs.
So far, we’ve been keeping the original chord progression (or “changes”) of the songs
we’ve been ragtimify-ing mostly intact. However, sometimes it makes a lot of sense to alter the
chord changes so that a song sounds a little less 2012 and a little more 1912. That’s exactly what
I did when I arranged the vintage Postmodern Jukebox cover of “Call Me Maybe,” which can be
seen here:
For the sake of comparison, here’s the original chord progression of Call Me Maybe, in
the key of F major:
To give it and old fashioned feel, I decided to change the chords into this progression:
The process of changing the chord progression of a tune is called reharmonization. When
you “reharm” a tune (that’s fancy jazz speak), you typically keep the melody the same - after all,
changing the chords and the melody of a song is called “writing a new song.” The trick is to find
new chords that won’t clash with the existing melody (full disclosure: I did change one note in
the melody of “Call Me Maybe” in this example). So how does one pick the right chords to use?
Trial and error. However, the more songs you play, the more chord progressions you’ll come
across, and the more you’ll begin to notice patterns across different genres. For an easy way to
familiarize yourself with a ton of jazz chord progressions, I recommend the iRealb app, which
allows you to see (and hear) the chord changes of thousands of jazz standards.
In this example, I wanted an early jazz / ragtime feel (the book is called Ragtimify, after
all), so I chose a progression that features chord movement typical of New Orleans / Dixieland
bands in the early 20th century.
As we did before, we’ll start by creating a stride left hand pattern out of the new chord
progression, with a couple of passing tones thrown in:
Then, we’ll add a right hand part with some basic variations on the melody to create a
“vintage” arrangement of the chorus, available on the next page. I’ve managed to include a
number of the devices we talked about: grace notes, tremolos, chromatic passing tones,
neighboring tones, and harmonized octaves. To help you find them, I’ve annotated them on the
score - once again, take note how they are used, so that you can add them to your ragtime tool kit
and use them to ragtimify other songs.
Try playing this with both “straight,” “dotted,” and “swung” eighth notes, and notice how
the feel changes- refer to the chapter about swing if you need help with this. For all you history
buffs: “straight” eighth notes were common in 1912, “dotted” eighths were common in 1922,
and “swung” eighth notes were common in 1932. That’s right; you can cover a 20 year span of
music history just by changing the way you play eighth notes!
So, without further ado: hey, I just met you, and this is crazy. But this is 1912, so
Telegraph Me Maybe.
It’s somewhat likely that you first heard about me as a result of my vintage jazz cover of
Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” on YouTube. Indeed, part of my reason for writing this guide was
to fulfill the countless requests I’ve received for piano sheet music of this cover. So, having gone
over the basics of turning songs into ragtime, it’s only fitting that I finally share something
resembling the piano part to this cover. If you’ve skipped over the rest of the guide to start at this
chapter, I can’t really get angry at you, since that’s what my impatient 12 year old self would’ve
done, too. I’m still going to make you sit through a bit of background info about my
arrangement process before actually sharing the music with you, though.
I first learned of “Thrift Shop” when I began receiving requests for it during my weekly
interactive request show at The song was just beginning to get popular, so I
thought it would be interesting to do a vintage cover of a modern song about wearing vintage
clothes (later on, electro swing DJs Bart & Baker remixed my cover, thus creating a modern remix
of a vintage cover of a modern song about wearing vintage clothes. Ragtime Inception!).
In creating a ragtime piano part for this, I essentially followed all the steps listed
throughout this guide: figure out the chords of the song, create a stride left hand, syncopate the
right hand, etc. However, to make things interesting, I decided to reharmonize (or “change the
chords of ”) the song so that it would better fit the genre of early jazz. There are a few parts to
the song, but let’s look at the main riff, taken from the sax line on the original recording:
This line is in G# minor (or Ab minor, enharmonically), which might not be the
friendliest of keys, but as long as you remember what sharps are in the key signature (F#, C#,
G#, D#, and A#), you should get used to it in time. I decided to support this riff with the
following chord progression: G#m – D#7(b9) – G#m – D#7(b9). Don’t worry about the b9
extension for now – just know that a G#m chord contains G#, B, and D#, and that a D#7(b9)
chord contains D#, F double sharp (notated with an ‘x’- really just a G), A#, C# and F flat
(which is really just E); since there are five notes in that chord, we’ll leave out the Eb to get F
double sharp (also known as G), A#, C#, and E. Whew! In case you’re confused, here’s the two
chords in notated form:
Now, if you remember from the left hand chapter, the first step is to put these chords in
the middle of the keyboard. It’s your lucky day today, because both those chords happen to be
right in the middle of the keyboard- no inversion necessary.
The next step is to add bass notes to fill out the stride left hand. We’ll keep things simple
and use the root notes of each chord- G# and D#.
To play it the way I did on YouTube, make those bass notes octaves, and add a walking
bass passing note to make things interesting (the F double sharp at the end).
All that’s left is to add the right hand riff to this stride pattern:
And there it is- the main riff from the Postmodern Jukebox Vintage “Grandpa Style”
cover of“Thrift Shop.” I then extended this riff into an 8 bar phrase that formed the backbone
of this arrangement:
I then improvised a part to play during the chorus:
So, since we’ve discussed the main parts of the song, let me share a full piano
arrangement with you, created from the piano part in our remake. This one should definitely
played with a swing feel – watch the video( at
v=4Cnm0tdkJEU ) if you need guidance. I’ve again notated the names of the chords I used up
top, so that you can familiarize yourself with them and hopefully create your own variations.
This is definitely a bit more challenging than the other excerpts, and the key signature certainly
doesn’t help matters. Take your time figuring it out! If some of the chords are too big to
comfortably play, leave out the bottom note and it’ll sound just fine. Also--this should go without
saying, but if you’re struggling with the coordination between the right hand and the left hand,
go back and work on some of the earlier exercises first- they’ll help you build the skills you need
to tackle this.
So far, we’ve examined the basic features of ragtime piano and the roles of both hands.
We’ve discussed how to turn a song into ragtime, and how to create variations on a melody. I
even spent several afternoons typing up an arrangement of the “Thrift Shop” cover that
everyone always requests. But, before we finish, I want to touch on another way to make ragtime
piano relevant.
Historically, the stride left hand – alternating low bass notes with chords – mimics the
rhythm section of a marching band. We could even say that the low notes mimic a tuba (or
another bass instrument) and the chords mimic a snare drum. Those instruments provided the
rhythmic backbone to marching bands of the time.
Fast forward to the present day. We may not hear tuba too often in today’s pop and r&b,
but we do hear a rhythmic backbone, usually provided by drums and bass. Just as the left hand
work in ragtime piano mimics the rhythm section of a Sousa March, we can create a left hand
pattern that mimics, say, a Dr. Dre track.
Let’s start with a basic stride piano in the key of Am. Be sure to play this very slowly:
In a typical hiphop (or pop) beat, the snare follows the kick drum in a similar fashion;
however, the kick is usually joined by a bassline, which may play a slightly busier pattern. Let’s
subdivide the rhythm in the left hand into this:
This is kind of like the main groove in “We Will Rock You.” Let’s take it a step further
and split up the octaves so that two notes occur in succession.
If you’re playing it slowly and correctly, you can probably already hear how this pattern
mimics the kick and snare of a hiphop beat, but if not, let’s throw a melody on top:
And there’s your first Gangsta Ragtime classic. You can modify this left hand pattern to
fit a number of rock beats, as well. Notice that, although it shares the same DNA as our original
stride left hand, the slight alterations in this pattern create a distinctly modern sound. This is
another part of the BIG IDEA that we started with- we can approximate nearly any style on the
piano just by varying the rhythmic structure and type of chords that we put behind a melody. We
chose to mimic a hip hop drum pattern in this example, but we could have mimicked virtually any
drum pattern if we were so inclined. You have the freedom to play any song in any genre you
A big part of my approach to the piano has to do with the fact that I’m terrible at sight
reading music. When I was teaching piano lessons to beginning piano students back in college,
there would inevitably come a day where I would be forced to demonstrate how to sight read an
easy piano piece. Without fail, I would crash and burn spectacularly, to the confusion and
probably dismay of the students. Since then, I’ve avoided using written music like the plague.
This is not to say that ear training should supplant sight reading skill, but in matters of
jazz and pop, having good ears easily trumps sight reading ability. Even if you’re content with
playing only written arrangements, the ability to recognize intervals and chords by sound is an
important part of becoming a well-rounded musician.
You may have heard someone with good ears described as having “perfect” pitch. That’s
not necessarily the case. Perfect (or “absolute”) pitch means that you can hear a pitch and identify
it, without having anything to compare it against. It is disputed whether this is an issue of
genetics or early auditory development, but this ability generally appears early in life. Singers are
also more likely to possess a variant of perfect pitch, having largely to do with the fact that there
are physiological changes that occur in the larynx when singing different pitches. It’s an
interesting topic, but perfect pitch is a bit over hyped and not really relevant to ear training.
I don’t have perfect pitch. What I do have is very good “relative” pitch. This means that I
can identify the relationship between two or more notes, without necessarily knowing the key.
This allows me to hear a melody or chord progression and be able to play it back on piano in any
key, which is extremely useful to me. I wasn’t born with this ability, however; it developed over
time as a result of consistent attempts to learn music by ear.
My approach to ear training was a practical one: when I heard something I wanted to
play that wasn’t available in sheet music form- say, a Fats Waller piano solo- I would sit at the
piano and keep rewinding the passage until I could figure out how to approximate the sounds (or
until I ruined the cassette – whichever came first). My early attempts at this were not particularly
successful, but I was undeterred. Eventually, I started noticing patterns to certain passages, and
that’s when I really started to develop. It’s a bit like the process of deriving equations, for all you
math and physics majors out there.
There are probably a lot of really good systems for ear training out there (Suzuki comes
to mind), but in all honesty, the “brute force” approach seems to work just as well:
Find something you want to play
Attempt to figure it out on the piano; fail
Listen to it again
Repeat steps 2 & 3 until you can play it
Of course, it’s crucial that you start simply and get more complex over time. The first step
is to get comfortable mimicking simple melodies- simple chord progressions come later. What’s
interesting is that certain genres of music are significantly easier to play by ear than others. If I
were to design a graduated ear training course that increased the melodic and harmonic difficulty
with each level, it would probably look something like this:
Level 1: Nursery Rhymes, a la “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (melody only)
Level 2: Current Pop or Country, a la Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw (melody only)
Level 3: All Blues Songs, a la BB King
Level 4: Classic Rock, a la The Beatles
Level 5: Motown and Soul, a la Marvin Gaye
Level 6: New Orleans Jazz, a la Louis Armstrong
Level 7: Swing, a la Count Basie
Level 8: Duke Ellington, a la Duke Ellington
Level 9: Bebop (try the “Charlie Parker Omnibook”)
Level 10: Post-bop Jazz, a la Herbie Hancock
Level 11: Chance music, a la John Cage (kidding. Kind of.)
When I was learning, the world was at the dawn of the internet era (remember Prodigy
Online?), so I my choices were limited by whatever cassettes or CDs the library in my town had
in their collection. Nowadays, however, one can simply pull up a YouTube video or iTunes track
and rewind to the same spot over and over, without fear of wearing out the cassette tape.
Ideally, you’ll pursue a dual strategy where you attempt to figure out as much as possible
by ear, and then “check your work” by looking at the sheet music. The practice of transcribing
music – notating what you hear in sheet music form – is also a highly effective way to learn for
advanced students. For passages that are a bit too quick to properly hear, you can try importing
the audio into a program like Garageband and then time stretching it to slow it down.
I grew up in a small town, so learning to play ragtime was largely a solitary endeavor for
me. It might be that way for you, too- and that's ok. However, music is about communication, so
you'll eventually want to find some way to share your music with others, and vice versa. Building
a network of other musicians will help you stay motivated, keep you informed about performance
opportunities, and inspire you to explore other types of music. Plus, playing with likeminded
musicians is a lot more fun than recording yourself playing piano and trumpet on a four track
tape recorder on a Friday night (yes, I used to do that, and it was awesome).
If you're in middle school or high school, you should obviously get involved in the music
department in your school- it's free to do so, after all. If you're in college, it should be relatively
easy to find other musicians; even easier if you can play a couple of Dave Matthews Band hits
(note: ragtime DMB tutorial not included in this edition). If you're out of school, open mic nights
and clubs that feature live music are a good place to start. It helps a lot to own your own
keyboard - preferably one with 88 fully weighted keys - and a small amplifier. You can get both
for less than $1000, and it will pay for itself tenfold once you start getting regular work as a
musician. Furthermore, having a portable keyboard rig allows you to create gigs for yourself. New
restaurant opening up in town? Ask them if they’d be interested in having live piano
entertainment once in awhile, and take it from there. A caveat: it is generally a bad idea to turn
your current place of employment into a gig without management approval. In fact, I was fired
from my first job at Wal-Mart when I was 16 for doing just that. Funny, “Jazz at the Paint
Counter” sounded like such a good idea at the time...
In addition to meeting other musicians, you should also start performing in front of other
people as soon as possible. Performing is a weird thing; the added pressure of playing in front of
an audience can be very distracting, and it’s a common experience to feel as though you play
much better when you’re practicing alone. However, the more you do it, the better you are able
to manage your anxiety. Once you have a few dozen performances under your belt, you may still
get nervous, but you’ll know how to harness that adrenaline and use it to help you, not hinder
you. Of course, you may have to force yourself (or have others force you) to perform the first
few times, and it will surely be terrifying. It helps to remember that even if you completely mess
up, you’ll always have the opportunity to redeem yourself, and nobody will care in the long run.
This goes double if you’re performing in front of other musicians—most musicians are too busy
thinking about how awesome they are to judge aspiring musicians!
It's important to be open minded about all styles of music when starting out. The
boundaries of genres are largely arbitrary, anyhow; a well rounded pianist should be able to fit in
a number of settings quite easily, since the theory is pretty much the same across the board. Most
ragtime pianists will go on to explore jazz at some point, and most jazz musicians will go on to
explore r&b and soul, and so forth. Each style has different, interesting features that you can
adopt to make your own music palette more refined (and marketable). A world without musical
collaboration across genre lines is a world without the saxophone riff from “Careless Whisper.”
Who wants to live in a world like that?
If you have the musical skill and networking abilities, you’ll find that you’ll be offered
performance opportunities before long. Don’t worry about whether a gig pays or not at first
(hint: it won’t). Focus on getting your name out there and bringing value to others, be it through
your musical skill or your hilarious personality, and the money will follow before long. There
exists a saying among musicians that there are three components to getting hired as an
1) Being a great player
2) Having a great attitude
3) Showing up on time
Luckily, as the saying goes, you only need two out of three.
Let's say that you've progressed to a point that music seems like a potential career path for
you. You're playing some gigs, collaborating with others, and occasionally getting paid. Great!
If you're in high school, you'll naturally want to consider continuing your music studies in college,
perhaps even in a conservatory.
When enrolled in a college music programs, you'll get to receive training from professional
musicians, perform in ensembles alongside other talented students, and have access to state-ofthe-art recording facilities and concert halls. Even better, you'll get to sleep in on weekdays, take
classes that interest you, and hang out with crazy free spirit music school kids. Sounds like a
dream, right? It is....except for some potential downsides.
You probably already know that colleges- in particular, the private schools that host many
of the top music programs- are expensive. Colleges are big business, and, like any business, are
motivated by profit. While some of your professors will be genuinely caring, helpful, and
enthusiastic about teaching, some of them will no doubt be mostly interested in collecting a
paycheck. You may also find that real world career counseling in music school is severely lacking,
since the usual procedures of job placement don't apply to musicians. That is not to say that
spending $40,000 a year to study in a conservatory isn't worth it, but understand that no school
can guarantee that a career in music awaits you on the other side; they will, however, guarantee
that student loan repayment does.
My advice is to do your research before enrolling in any program, especially if you are
planning to take out significant student loans to pay for school. There are a number of music
departments in state and city schools that can provide just as good an education at a fraction of
the cost of a name brand private school. If a private school still seems like a better choice, be
sure to talk to alumni and current students to get an insider’s opinion. Don’t be swayed by the
glossy magazine covers and slick marketing!
Also, be realistic about your goals. There’s no shame in working a day job if it’ll provide
you with the income you need to create music. You may want to consider the option of double
majoring, or even majoring in a field outside of music while enrolling in some music classesplenty of successful musicians have gone this route. Music Ed and Music Production majors
typically get a strong music education and plenty of performance opportunities, while also
increasing their odds of landing a job out of school. If that isn't playing it safe enough, majoring
in a math or science based program all but guarantees that you'll have a job, should you decide
that you'd prefer to have a stable, financially secure life and perform on weekends. There is no
one correct path, but there may be one that is better suited to you as an individual.
If life decisions like this are stressing you out, it may be comforting to know that, in all my
professional experience- which includes music directing a very successful show in NYC and
arranging music for a very successful video game- I've never been asked to provide any proof of a
college education. In a creative field such as music, your ability, work ethic, and the value you
bring-- as both a musician and a human being-- are the only things that matter. You don't need to
go to school for music to build a career in music. But, that’s a story for another time...
When I was starting out with ragtime piano, I remember thinking how amazing it would
be if could someday play this genre well. Sometimes, faced with a difficult passage that I just
couldn’t seem to play correctly, I wondered if it would ever happen. I wished that I could ask my
future self, to be sure that I wasn’t wasting my time.
I may not be able to tell my 12 year old self that all that practicing will pay off, but I can
assure you, the reader, that it most definitely will. Even if you never intend to play professionally
and approach piano as a hobbyist, making music is a skill that will stay with you forever. In
addition, it will have a spillover effect into other areas of your life. You’ll learn discipline and
critical thinking skills, exercise your creativity, and become a more interesting person at parties.
Learning an instrument is never a waste of time.
I hope the ideas I’ve presented are enough to inspire you to start your own musical
journey (or a similar cliché). And, despite the super specific and slightly tongue-in-cheek title of
this publication, I hope I’ve been able to teach you a little bit about music outside of ragtime, as
well (remember the BIG IDEA?). I’ve been very fortunate to be able to make a living in music,
and I want to help others do the same. There’s truly nothing better than waking up and
knowing that a full day of music awaits you.
If this guide has been helpful, or if you have any questions, pop over to http:// to let me know.
Also, you can check out my blog at for more
education (and entertainment).
And, of course, I will continue to release new videos of my own pop music
transformations on my YouTube channel at
You now have the tools you need. The only thing left is for you to do is to take action. Go
forth and RAGTIMIFY the world!
If you’d like to learn more about ragtime and stride piano, there are tons of other great resources
on the internet for you to check out. A good place to start would be to search YouTube for music
by the original ragtime and stride piano masters. They include works by:
Scott Joplin
Joseph Lamb
James Scott
Eubie Blake
James P. Johnson
Fats Waller
Willie “The Lion” Smith
Art Tatum
Also, I was influenced a lot by this album when I was a kid, which was my first real introduction
to this style of piano:
Here are a bunch of other Scott Bradlee-approved links:
-Free sheet music of lots of classic ragtime compositions are available here: http://
-Pianist and historian Terry Waldo talks ragtime and early jazz and gives examples of turning
songs into ragtime in this excellent video:
-Ragtime pianist Martin Spitznagel has a great page on ragtime and a tutorial video here:
-Jonny May has tutorial videos and transcriptions of his own excellent ragtime arrangements
available at:
Finally, if you’re a diehard ragtime nerd, you might even check the annual ragtime festival in
Sedalia, MO: