Style Wars: Ragtime vs Honky Tonk vs Boogie Woogie: Definitions, discussions and midi samples of each

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While researching for my Boogie Woogie page I came across several references to "honky tonk" and "ragtime" music. Like most people I had a general feeling for what these might be but it wasn't clear so I decided to compare these three uniquely American music forms and create the following page for anyone else who might be interested:



Defined: an American musical genre enjoying its peak popularity from 1900 to 1918. It's a style of jazz usually written in 2/4 or 4/4 time characterized by a syncopated rhythm (melodic notes landing largely on the off-beats) in the melody and a steadily accented accompaniment on the base. The bass beat often consists of single notes played on odd-numbered beats and chords played on even-numbered beats. Many "rags," or ragtime songs, contain four themes or melodic patterns, making the song sound like a medley of four different tunes. Here are two midi examples:

Original Ragtime

The Entertainer


Discussion: The two main differences between ragtime and boogie woogie is that ragtime does not have a walking bass and the melodies tend to be less improvised. I would class boogie woogie as a subgenre of ragtime: all boogies are rags but not all rags are boogies.

Honky Tonk

Defined: a style of popular music first played by country music bands in and around Texas during the 1930s and 1940s.

Unbelievably, that's the only definition of Honky Tonk I could find, other than in its early years it was commonly played on poorly-tuned pianos that gave it a "tinny" sound. Let's listen to two midi examples and see what we can figure out:

Honky Tonk Blues

Honky Tonk Serenade


Discussion: The problem with coming up with a concise definition of honky tonk music is that it covers such a wide range of styles that it's impossible to nail down. It's like trying to define country music. Honky tonk used to refer to a cheap, tinny-sounding, small band style typical of country bars and roadhouses. That is no longer the case because while the style might have come from there, it has evolved to a refined style of music that meshes smoothly into the broader genre of country music. One thing I noticed was that honky tonk typically has only one melody whereas ragtime almost always has several. Also, honky tonk has a weaker base line that is a steady beat, while ragtime has a more demonstrative base that bounces up and down between two prime notes.

Boogie Woogie

Defined: Dictionaries define "Boogie Woogie" as a style of up-tempo 4/4 music with a repeating melodic pattern in the bass and a series of improvised variations in the treble. Here are two midi examples:

Boogie Woogie

Choo Choo Ch'Boogie


Discussion: Boogies tend to be fast, faster even than most early rock and roll songs. The most significant feature of boogie woogie music is that the base is loud enough and distinctive enough to play an important part in establishing the feel of the song. Additionally, the base follows a unique rising/falling sequence of notes called a "walking base." While used in some other music forms, when combined with the relative loudness of the bass it serves to give boogie woogie its characteristic sound. (For a more detailed discussion of boogie woogie please see my Boogie Woogie Page.) Boogie Woogie is the most distilled of the three styles in that even minor changes to the rhythm quickly changes it into something that may sound a little like a boogie, but clearly isn't. Most notably, slowing it down and weakening the base turns it into early rock and roll.


The data for this page came from Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories, by Joel Whitburn, 1986, published by Record Research, Inc., Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin,, Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition,,,,, and several other Internet sites.


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