Ragtime: The First “American” Music?

Ragtime: The First “American” Music?
Ellen Wilson: Sports and Popular Culture

Skill: Elementary School
Time Required: One to two class periods


Much of Ellen Wilson’s life was spent as the wife of a college professor, at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan University, and, finally, Princeton.  If college students then were like college students now (and they probably were!), the Wilsons were exposed to most popular music of the day, including music which some thought was “degrading” and even “sinful.”  Such a kind of music was ragtime, a bouncy, march-like music with a syncopated, “off” beat, that gave it it’s “ragged” style.  In fact, ragtime music laid a foundation for jazz, and both ragtime and jazz are considered to have been “born in America.”


Students who participate in this activity will learn something about ragtime music, its history, and the ways in which it has contributed to others forms of American popular music.  They will also have the opportunity to think about their own personal response to a certain type of music and try to “capture” that response in words and drawings.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet Access to books about ragtime music, or recordings of ragtime music Paper and pencils Art supplies


1.  As background, the teacher can read “Ragtime may be the first American music…,” an Internet site listed below.
2.  With the whole class, play some ragtime music for the whole class (The Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer are two likely pieces) either from a CD or from the Internet sites, “Listen to Some Ragtime,”  and "The Music of Scott Joplin," below.
3.  Ask students to draw a picture expressing the feeling the music gives them.  Have students share their pictures with one another and talk about what their pictures express.
4.  Then ask students to write several short sentences, or even a short paragraph that attempts to put the feelings generated by the music into words.  Have students share these written pieces as well.
5.  Play some representative pieces of current popular music, particularly rock and roll and rap.  Ask students to draw and write about how the music makes them feel, as they did with ragtime music, and to share their work.
6.  As a culminating activity, the whole class can discuss the following:

  • what  makes music “popular”?
  • what some similarities and differences are between ragtime and rock and roll or rap?
  • why popular music is sometimes thought by some to be “bad” or “vulgar” or even “sinful”? 

Extending the Lesson:

One way in which this lesson could be extended is through the study of the life of Scott Joplin, who was perhaps the greatest ragtime composer.  Students can write biographies of Joplin, or could become familiar with the history of some of his particular compositions, including the history of his ragtime opera, Treemonisha, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

Sources & Resources:

Ragtime may be the first American music
Listen to Some Ragtime
Biography of Scott Joplin
The Music of Scott Joplin
This lesson plan was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.