Ragtime and Stride are two styles of American piano playing that are closely related and often mistaken for one another. Both styles are virtuosic with an active, steady bass line with a syncopated melodic line in the right hand. The styles developed over a short period of time, first Ragtime and then Stride.
Here’s a breakdown of some features that set these two styles of playing apart.
Ragtime repertoire consisted primarily of “rags,” a compositional form and style inspired by marches. These pieces of music were typically written down and played as the sheet music dictated. Most rags were composed in duple meter (2/4 or 2/2), though there are a fair selection of waltzes (3/4) in the repertoire. They often consist of four strains, melodic ideas typically 16 measures each that are organized in the following form:
||: A :|| ||: B :|| A ||: C :|| ||: D :||
A common formal variation is to include a final playing of the “A” strain at the end of the piece. Rags often start with a short introduction before the first playing of the “A” strain. Other modifications to the form are possible, even prevalent.
Stride repertoire was more open-ended. It included songs from the Great American Songbook as well as original compositions. Tin Pan Alley songs were typically published in the form of a very generic piano arrangement. This gave stride pianists room to add their own personalities into these songs rather than being beholden to the sheet music.
Ragtime music did not involve improvisation. It stayed true to the written music. Sometimes, performers would repeat sections of pieces more times than indicated to add length to the pieces, particularly during social functions.
Stride allowed for more embellishments and improvisation as part of the performance of pieces. This component was critical to moving forward from Ragtime into the Jazz tradition.
Ragtime originated in the southern and midwestern United States in the 1890s. Missouri was a central hub for the music, perhaps in part because legendary Ragtime composer and pianist Scott Joplin made Sedalia, MO his home for much of his life.
Stride originated in Harlem, New York City around 1920. James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Willie “The Lion” Smith were the three pianists credited with being innovators and masters of Stride piano. These artists were aware of Ragtime and drew from its rich tradition in their own music.
Ragtime waxed and waned in popularity before recorded music was commonplace. The music was primarily preserved in the sheet music published during the time. Toward the end of the Ragtime Era, player pianos came into prominence and some Ragtime performances were preserved as piano rolls. Once music recording technologies advanced, some of the surviving pianists of the Ragtime Era, such as Eubie Blake and Joseph Lamb, recorded their works.
Stride developed alongside early recording technology. This is a true gift because we, a century later, can hear how Stride was played at the time of its creation by the artists who created it.
I hope this explanation helps bring clarity to how Ragtime and Stride are distinctive approaches to pianistic performance and composition in the United States.
Learn More About Ragtime
This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.