Scott Joplin: Maple Leaf Rag


Scott Joplin is remembered for being one of the most memorable ragtime composers of the turn-of-the-century during his lifetime (1868-1917). After Joplin’s death in 1917, ragtime music came out of the ‘mainstream’ line and started to form into the likes of jazz, big band swing and the blues. Joplin’s music went out of fashion, with only a small number of ragtime aficionados keeping his music alive. It wasn’t until some ground-breaking recordings done in the 1970s that Joplin’s music found a new lease of life. A number of his piano rags and his opera Treemonisha have become some of the most recognisable music of the genre. 


The Music

Maple Leaf Rag was one of Joplin’s earliest rags for the piano. It is often known as the most famous ragtime piece that has gone on to inspire a number of composers. This quintessential rag brings together many aspects of a rag into one neatly packed piano work. 

The quick tempo and huge leaps for both hands makes this a difficult rag for any pianist. The march-like style paired with the cakewalk-inspired melody creates the archetypal ragtime composition. With Maple Leaf Rag Joplin writes bounding leaps for the bass line and off-beat melodies on the other hand. The four sections of this rag create diversity in the melody and show the development of the bassline. Joplin’s persistent use of seventh chords also creates that archetypal sound for a ragtime piece. 

This athletic rag requires focused coordination for both hands to make sure each off-beat inflection and bass line motif meet and part at the right time. The suspended melody line trickles down the scale as Joplin’s chromatic writing grows into fruition. The frivolity of the work masks the serious concentration and dexterity required from the performer. As the main melody is repeated near the end as the music moves back into the home key of Ab major, the hands unite for the final chords to create a bold conclusion.


Final Thoughts

Maple Leaf Rag is still one of Scott Joplin’s most popular works. From the infectious melody to the challenges it poses for performers, this archetypal rag will keep putting smiles on faces for years to come.


Happy Reading!

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