Now listen to part of a lecture in a music history class.
P: Often times we talk about the popularity of music, but we don't always think about the role that the instruments play in their popularity. To give you an idea of what I mean, just take Ragtime music for instance. Without the piano, Ragtime music certainly wouldn't have evolved in the late 1800's the way that it did. I mean...characteristics like the keys, and the chords, made the piano suitable for playing the separate parts of the music: the melodies, rhythms, harmonies, at the same time. So, with one hand you could play the melody, while playing the harmony with the other. All the while maintaining the rhythm, all characteristic of Ragtime music. In other words, the piano allowed musicians to create the lively sound of Ragtime music unlike any other instruments of their time.
And for about 20 years, Ragtime music was America's most popular music, particularly the piano rag, although some people didn't exactly embrace ragtime, young people in general especially liked it.
S: Kind of like Rock and Roll in the '50s?
P: Without a doubt. I mean of course Ragtime in 1900 didn't sound at all like Rock and Roll did in 1950, but I'd say that's a fair comparison. Ragtime generated the same kind of excitement that other kinds of music like Rock and eventually Rap did.
S: Really? Well, with Rock and Rap, I get why they are popular, but when it comes to Ragtime, well...I don't get it.
P: Ok, let’s take a moment to look at what Ragtime music was about; it was fresh and new, it was the first kind of mainstream music that used African-American rhythms and that was exciting, and finally the music and even the lyrics reflected the restless energy and optimism of young people. Can you see how it could capture the spirit of American youth? Just like Rock would do 50 years later?
So, getting back to the piano, of all instruments. As I said before, its unique design was part of the appeal, which was well suited to the style and rhythm of Ragtime music, but there were other reasons why it was so popular. Remember, this was the time before the advent of the automobile. The piano was a symbol of respectability, a symbol of success. Other than a house, it had represented, for many families, their biggest single purchase, and even though not everyone could afford it, everyone wanted to enjoy. So, wherever you would go, restaurants, theaters, the main instrument used for indoor public musical entertainment, was the piano. But let's not leave out the sound quality.
Few people realize how powerful the pianos used at that time were, they used the big types of pianos then, before the smaller pianos like Spinets came into fashion. The Ragtime-era pianos could produce a sound that was so full, it would even resonate through the wooden floors of any building, be it a home, concert hall or whatever! This full sound itself had the listeners actually feeling these unique and exciting piano vibrations though their feet and bones.
S: Wow! I never thought of that. So...they...the piano and the ragtime style were perfect for each other.
P: Well... in a sense... yes. But granted, although the piano's sound quality was exceptional, there were benefits to using other instruments to play ragtime. For instance, events like parades, and park concerts, required instruments that were easier to transport, like the banjo and the comet. Nevertheless, the piano played such a fundamental role in Ragtime. In fact, its sound quality alone contributed to piano sales peaking in 1909—roughly the mid-point of the Ragtime-era. It's no coincidence that the number of published piano rags, or sheet music, also reached their peak their very same year.
S: It's too bad that Ragtime music isn't still around, I kind of liked some of the music from that era.
P: Well, just like all music, it went through some major transitions. It began as a fixed form of music; it always had to be played as written, but that was in the beginning. Eventually, it evolved into a form of music that's still around today. Can you guess what?
S: Hm...I'd say since its rhythm is a lot like jazz, that's got to be it.
P: You got it! You could almost say that jazz is an improvised kind of Ragtime music. So you see, because of jazz, we still have the remnants of Ragtime around.