Stop-time Across American Art Forms

Stop-time, now a commonly used musical device, once sounded like a radical means of ambiguating the pulse of a piece of music. Barry Kernfeld wrote for the Grove Music Dictionary this description of the technique:

 An ensemble or pianist repeats in rhythmic unison a simple one- or two-bar pattern consisting of sharp accents and rests, while the soloist takes command. Metre and tempo remain intact; only the texture of the accompaniment changes.

Grove Music Dictionary

Stop-time became a prominent musical device around the turn of the 20th century and was important to the rhythmic vitality of Ragtime. Some of the first examples of this in written music are in Scott Joplin’s rags such as The Ragtime Dance (1906) and Stop-time Rag (1910). In these pieces, Joplin discontinued the steady, predictable left hand patterns, leaving the melody line exposed. Joplin did compose an accompaniment for the melody, not to be played by the left hand as expected, but rather by the feet. In the sheet music, Joplin indicated intricate feet tapping patterns with the word “stamp” and a line pointing to the melody note with which the stamp was supposed to co-occur.

Stop-time Rag, as performed by Joshua Rifkin

Reaching beyond the musical world, stop-time became a prominent feature of the emerging popular dance at the time, tap dance. Like Ragtime, tap dance originated from global traditions that converged in the United States. The Irish Jig and the African American Juba derived from the African djouba or gioube coalesced on plantations in the 1700s. [1] But, it was around the turn of the 20th century when tap dance underwent its most significant transformation. {2] It absorbed the highly syncopated rhythmic vocabulary of Ragtime, including stop-time figures, and evolved into the sub-genre jazz tap. Or, perhaps rather than tap dance taking from Ragtime the relationship between these two art forms was more of a cross-pollination. This bond between American music and dance is something I want to explore further in the future.

Around the same time as Joplin’s stop-time pieces were published, another important innovation in music was under way – the invention of the drum set. Prior to this consequential development, the various instruments that comprise a drum set were each played by individual musicians. Percussionists in theater orchestras and dance bands realized that they could position their drums in such a way that they would only need one performer. [3] In order to play more drums at once, drummers created pedals to allow one foot to depress a lever that sent a beater toward the bass drum’s batter head. [4] In 1909, William F. Ludwig patented a design for a bass drum pedal with a cymbal striker. [5] Is it possible that the drum set’s evolution, particularly the use of foot pedals, be informed by Joplin’s foot-stamping stop-time technique? Or, perhaps, were the foot pedals merely employed to allow a single musician to play more percussion instruments simultaneously, with no regard for Joplin’s innovations? I have yet to be able to answer these questions.

Examples of Stop-time in the First Half of the 20th Century

Here are a few examples of how stop-time was utilized in music following the Ragtime Era.

Louis Armstrong, Potato Head Blues (1927)

There are numerous solo breaks where the accompaniment stops, but the most brilliant example is Louis Armstrong’s solo starting at 1:50.

Benny Goodman, Sugar Foot Stomp (1937)

In Benny Goodman’s rendition of Sugar Foot Stomp, there is a great example of stop-time during the trumpet solo starting at 1:10.

Ralph Brown, Ornithology (1946)

Throughout this dazzling take on Ornithology, Ralph Brown takes incredible breaks when the time “stops,” the first one being at 0:21. At 1:16, Brown trades fours with the band (i.e. the band plays for four measures, followed by Brown soloing without accompaniment for the next four measures).

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.

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