Sometimes words aren’t necessary in the music. Some of my favorite instrumentals come from the ragtime genre. One of the most popular rags — and my favorite rag — is “Maple Leaf Rag,” composed by Scott Joplin.
Traced back to the red-light districts of blacks in and around St. Louis, ragtime came into being at the very end of the 1800s. It enjoyed popularity through the beginning of the 1900s before jazz supplanted it as the preferred music genre of the masses.
Syncopation (irregular rhythm parts) is the defining feature of ragtime music. It’s also very rigid in structure with a main theme that is repeated multiple times throughout the song. Although, the theme can be slightly altered to fit within a different section of the song if needed. Commonly, rags are solo piano pieces, but some rags have multiple instruments.
Joplin has been referred to as the “King of Ragtime.” His works have been covered and used as the basis for countless pieces of music in a number of different genres. “Maple Leaf Rag” was one of Joplin’s earliest contributions and is widely considered to be the first instrumental to sell one million copies.
Part of the reason Joplin was so successful was a partnership with music publisher and promoter John Stillwell Stark. Sensing an opportunity upon hearing the song — and with a little prodding from his daughter — he entered into a contract with Joplin that paid Joplin $50 for the song and a $0.01 royalty for each copy sold. It’s also believed there was a stipulation that the song had to be sold for at least $0.25 per copy. Since the song was published before 1923, it’s now in the public domain.
Several pianists have tried their hands at this rag. While experienced pianists don’t consider it difficult, it’s not the easiest piece to get the hang of because of the coordination required from both of your hands at the same time. Below is a good interpretation. It’s a little quicker in pace than the original, but still very well done.