“Don’t play this piece fast. It is never right to play ragtime fast.”
So recently I had the pleasure of being nominated for the Entertainer Blogger Award by a swell chap by the name of LilSamuelJones. I took to just calling it the Entertainer award. There was more than a mere mention of ragtime, “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin being one of the most recognized works of ragtime in the world. I was so reminded of my love for ragtime by discussing it with some lovely people that I happened upon this idea: Why not do our monthly series on Top 20 music themes for August on video game ragtime?
I was first introduced to ragtime by a friend and loved the glee of it so much I went out and bought a CD called Scott Joplin’s Greatest Hits, or some such. Yes, it was a CD. Almost as antiquated as ragtime itself. I also fell in love with ragtime as I encountered it in video games. Ragtime became a big motivator for learning piano and at the peak of my ability (before getting out of practice) I could play “The Maple Leaf Rag” and “Sleepless City Treno” pretty okay. Nothin’ like the masters but I could entertain my family at least.
It’s impossible to listen to ragtime without being a little cheery yourself, it’s so bright and energetic. But what is ragtime? It was originally known as “jig piano” as dance music. The first ragtime song to be written was “LA Pas Ma LA” by Ernest Hogan. Ragtime was therefore created by and later popularized by African-American entertainers.
The word ragtime comes from “ragged time” which describes this musical genre’s peculiarities: staccato notes, syncopation, a kind of two-step rhythm played with the left hand and the complex melody played with the right, usually in 2/4 or 4/4. Ragtime is a form of late-1800’s, early-1900’s jazz heavily influenced by march music, giving it that “one-two, one-two” pace. Since ragged time is a rhythm it can be applied to non-ragtime songs, giving them an upbeat pace. This is known as “ragging” the piece.
Another trait of ragtime is its metric pattern, which is generally an introduction, a first, a second, and a third melody, each of which is played twice, sometimes returning to the first (or AABBCCA). Ragtime songs are often known as “Rags” for short.
We commonly think of smokey saloons and honky-tonk pianos banging out ragtime at a furious pace, but as the “King of Ragtime Writers” Scott Joplin insisted, rags should be played with a swing, not necessarily with a rapid pace.
Ragged time reached the height of its popularity and then dramatically sank into obscurity all within a short period of time prior to c.1910, the popularity of jazz taking its place.
Ragtime, therefore, is distinctly American (jazz being an American invention) and represents a small period in American history. There are several things that are associated with ragtime, such as “blackface”, which are just as reprehensible now as they were then. I mean no association with them in enjoying the following music for the sake of the music itself: influential in the development of jazz, a fusion of African-American syncopation and European classical music.
And there’s your history lesson on ragtime! Sorry if it was longish but I don’t often get to write about ragtime.
Funny that the last time we did one of these musical countdowns, we looked at the Top 20 video game Space themes. This time we’re going a lot smaller and a lot more specific than that. Some music is often mistaken for ragtime incorrectly. Even the original composers of the stuff understood that. So it should be said that old-timey jazz or bluegrass or rinky-dink circus music is not the same thing as ragged time as described above! I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible with the choices that made our list. Songs that are musically similar but not fully rags will have to be honorable mentions.
So here they are, the cat’s pajamas: the Top 20 video game Rags. As far as I could tell this is the only such list of songs that are actual rags in video games on the internet.
#20. “Main theme” – Domino Man
What the heck is Domino Man, you ask? An arcade game from 1982 where you play as a Mario clone who must set up gigantic dominoes on black dots across the screen while avoiding enemies or smacking them over the head with dominoes, WWF style. Duck soup! If you don’t remember Domino Man, that’s okay, I guess. But do remember that it used the King of Ragtime’s masterpiece “The Maple Leaf Rag” for its soundtrack. Dilly!
#19. “Stage Theme” – The Untouchables
Nothing says “violent gangsters” like ragtime! For some reason, the individual placed in charge of the music for this ZX Spectrum adaptation of crime film The Untouchables decided it would be appropriate to listen to lighthearted, tinny chiptunes whilst blowing away urban gangsters. I’m sure this is the sort of thing that Al Capone listened to while planning to put someone in a pine-overcoat. Curtains, get me?
#18. “The Entertainer” – Gran Turismo 5
Don’t be a grouser but this next track is yet another appearance of one of Scott Joplin’s classics. Everyone knows “The Entertainer” thanks to The Sting and countless other appearances in media. It’s pretty unfair for it to occupy a spot on this list since it’s so popular and not original to GT5. It appears in many other games, and some rhythm game remixes for franchises like Donkey Kong and Taiko Drum Master. And it’s not even an 8-bit version! I felt bad about including it but there are so few video game rags! Just enjoy the lazy swing of the piano rolls as your car gets washed by a crew of smartly dressed chaps.
#17. “Birabuto Kingdom” – Super Mario Land
Prepare yourselves for the first of many appearances of Super Mario on this list. That’s pretty strange considering Mario is of Japanese origins and ragtime is so distinctly American, but well… he is Bob Hoskins. Like virtually every song on Super Mario Land, this track is tough to listen to for a length of time. It’s high-pitched and repetitive. It loops in less than 30 seconds. The Game Boy just didn’t have great audio capabilities. But hey, at least it’s relentlessly cheerful and the song is an original one.
#16. “Ragtime Warfare” – Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Speaking of original songs, this track is not one. It’s actually “Rescued!!” by Abraham Harold Lass. I’m sure that title was on the tip of your tongue. It appears after a cheat in COD4 which speeds up the gameplay and filters the graphics through grainy sepia. “Ragtime Warfare” is such a wonky, novel idea that this one had to make an appearance on this list, even if it’s slightly un-raggish. It’s the score for a silent film. Nobody thinks of ragtime when they think of Call of Duty games!
#15. “Ragtime” – the Incredible Machine 3
Remember those smokey saloons? This track sounds like it’s being played in one. There are the poker players in the corner eyeballin’ each other, the bartender named Tapper, the honky tonk women, the drunk guy who can’t quit hiccuping, and the piano roll scrolling to this track with its on-the-nose title. What’s interesting about The Incredible Machine 3 is how most of its songs are named for specific genres of music. Tip of the hat to ya for having a song named “Ragtime”.
#14. “K.K. Ragtime (Aircheck)” – Animal Crossing
Sounding like a keyboard organ more than a piano, here is a song that refuses to be anything but happy from a video game that refuses to be anything but just the same. It loops fairly quickly and lacks the multi-part structure of a traditional rag, but what is here is like a musical sugar drop.
#13. “Ragtime Cooking” – Cooking Mama 2: Dinner with Friends
I don’t know that your mother has ever been this freakishly delighted to slave over a hot stove, but Cooking Mama is! Just look at her bright-eyed anime smile! Maybe it’s because she’s rocking ragtime in the kitchen that she’s always in such a sunny mood, even when “friends” suddenly show up for dinner unannounced. Either that or she’s a wino… Spifflicated! Just eat her dishes in small portions. She puts a butt-ton of sugar in the food. “Ragtime Cooking” is the anthem of the diabeetus diet!
#12. “Ending Theme” – The Legend of Zelda
Whaaat?! The Legend of Zelda? Here? Why should the first NES open world classic that kicked off the beloved fantasy franchise be on a countdown of video game ragtime? Be honest. You don’t exactly think of ragtime when you see Link brandishing the Master Sword. Imagine how hilarious the opening title sequence of Ocarina of Time would be if it was set to ragtime! But the simple fact is that video games have a history of using rags to “roll credits”, as films did before them. That’s what the original Legend of Zelda decided to do with this song that plays after the end of the adventure. Throw a little soft-shoe, a little high hat, and you’ve got a catchy song that doesn’t sound like it belongs with the rest of the game. Somebody was drunk in the kitchen! Why don’t we call this “The Zelda Rag”?
#11. “Humoresque of a Little Dog” – Mother
The last track on the first half of our countdown is the first track I loved before writing the first half of our countdown. Maybe you had to read that twice… Appearing again in Earthbound on the SNES, the NES game Mother can be credited with originating this swingy little tune. The word “humoresque” means a short, lively piece of music. Describes it perfectly. And how! Anyhow this version of the melody sounds more upbeat and percussive than its SNES counterpart. It might be about a little dog but I just think it’s the cat’s meow.
Did you think this countdown was just the bee’s knees? I think it’s the berries. Hope it hit on all sixes, even for the bluenoses out there (you know who you are). What ragtime songs do you think will make it onto the top 10 of our ultimate countdown? Drop us a comment below, gams and birds!
-The Well-Red Mage