Top Musical Genres of the 1960s

If the 1960s music scene were a cup, it would be filled to the brim. And why not? It wasn’t called the ‘Swinging Sixties’ for nothing. Music was an essential part of this massive cultural revolution during the decade. 

The early part of the decade was still mostly dominated by rock and roll, peppered by lyrics about “boy loves girl.” But it was also at this stage that the music scene started to bloom. Pop, folk music, and soul came together and found a devoted following in the early 1960s.

Rock music, from its simplest and purest form, was split into many branches that enjoyed enormous popularity – beat, pop rock, psychedelic rock, progressive rock, and folk rock, to name a few. 

Lyrically, 1960s music evolved significantly. From simple lyrics aching about puppy love, artists now began to write songs with lyrics declaring personal freedom and lyrics daringly tackling certain social issues that weren’t brought to light before.

Pop also dominated the 1960s airwaves, captivating audiences with bright and catchy tunes, cheery lyrics, and lush instrumentation. The 1960s saw the rebirth of folk music, which was given a fresh look with new compositions written in the traditional folk style.

Rhythm and blues (R&B) remained broadly popular, finding success beyond traditionally African American audiences. The iconic Motown Records brought gospel, jazz, R&B, pop, and rock and roll together to bring several biggest chart successes of the decade.

As listeners began to embrace new sounds, the 1960s brought them to world music, such as Latin American, Jamaican, Indian, and Cuban music.

The 1960s were a decade marked by remarkable musical creativity and diversity; several genres not only blossomed during this period, but they also completely changed the face of art and culture. Significant changes in style, content, and expression were prevalent throughout this time, reflecting the period’s dynamic social and political changes. The 1960s provided a diverse tapestry of sounds and themes, ranging from the psychedelic explorations of new rock subgenres to the reflective lyrics of folk music and the soulful depths of R&B to the rock and roll revolution. In this article, we examine the most popular musical genres of the 1960s and discuss how they influenced music history and helped create the distinctive soundtrack of this important decade.

The Beatles in America

Beat music

Beat music originated in the United Kingdom, particularly in Liverpool and nearby areas along the River Mersey. It was influenced by a combination of other genres, namely rock and roll and skiffle (a sub-genre of folk music known for employing homemade or improvised musical instruments). With the rising popularity of the Liverpool and “Merseybeat” bands, most notably The Beatles (above picture), beat music expanded to the rest of the UK starting in 1963 and reached the United States and elsewhere in 1964.

Folk and folk rock

In the United States, the good old folk was given a fresh revival, with new compositions written in the conventional folk style. This movement brought some of the decade’s most notable stars like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan (above picture).

The most notable hallmark of this movement was the introduction of electric guitars to folk music, giving birth to folk rock. While folk purists jeered at the new “rocking” rhythm section, others followed suit. This movement resulted in big “crossover” chart hits, such as The Byrds’ iconic “jangling” cover version of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine” man.

Jefferson Airplane White Rabbit poster

Psychedelic rock

The 1960s culture gave birth to smatterings of sub-cultures. One of them includes psychedelia, which is centered on the use of perception-altering substances, or “psychedelic drugs,” like LSD.

Psychedelic rock is either directly influenced by such drug use or inspired by psychedelic culture (with or without involving the use of such drugs).

The 13th Floor Elevators are considered the pioneers of the rock sub-genre. Acts such as The Grateful Dead, Country Joe and Fish, and Jefferson Airplane (above picture) helped push the sound to mainstream popularity.

Jimi Hendrix

Blues and blues rock

Pioneered by acts like Lonnie Mack, Canned Heat, and Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the sound took off with rising artists such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix (above picture), and the Allman Brothers Band.

The great Jimi Hendrix and his unique guitar star became one of the most emulated in the 1960s. Although he and his band Experience were only around for a brief time, they gained wild popularity.

English axeman Eric Clapton was also considered a blues pioneer who earned the moniker “Slowhand.” A former member of the Yardbirds, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, and the power trio Cream, Clapton found even more massive popularity as a solo artist that lasted way past the 1960s with hits like “Wonderful Tonight” and “Tears in Heaven.”

the marvelettes

R&B and soul

The founding and success of Motown Records in the 1960s was a testament to the pop-flavored soul. It started its iconic run with hits like the #1 Billboard pop smash “Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes (above picture).

Sam Cooke, James Brown, and Otis Redding led the soul movement. And a huge R-E-S-P-E-C-T to Aretha Franklin for her rendition of Redding’s original song and other hits like “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).”

Chubby Checker 2005

Pop

Chubby Checker was a pioneer of 1960s pop with his hit cover of Hank Ballard & the Midnighters’ “The Twist.”

1960s pop took many forms. The so-called “Brill Building pop” originated from the Brill Building in New York City, where many songwriters penned hits for teen idols and girl groups. This pop sub-genre is known for Goffin-King-penned hits like the Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and Little Eva’s “The Locomotion.”

Bubblegum pop was considered contrived or aimed explicitly at children and adolescents with its light and catchy tunes. The best example of this sound is the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar.” 

Sunshine pop, on the other hand, was created as a “feel-good” pop subgenre typified by rich harmony vocals, lush instrumentation, and relentlessly good cheer. It had its roots in easy listening and commercial jingles. The best representation of this sound is probably “The Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” by the 5th Dimension, which topped the Billboard pop charts in 1969.

Rock and Roll

In the 1960s, rock and roll was a dynamic and revolutionary genre that reflected and shaped the overall cultural mood. Rock & roll emerged from the rebellious attitude of the 1950s and developed into a more refined and varied sound in this decade. Legendary groups such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones transformed the genre with their inventive compositions and captivating live shows, incorporating elements of folk, blues, and even classical music into their songs. The genre became a potent vehicle for young people to express themselves and make social commentary because of its appeal, which cut across boundaries and language barriers.

Rock and roll concerts evolved into popular culture events that attracted large crowds, representing the quest for independence and individuality of a generation. The music captured the spirit of change, rebellion, and the quest of new horizons, and it was much more than just pleasant songs. It served as the soundtrack to a societal revolution. The legacy of rock & roll from the 1960s permeates contemporary music, demonstrating the genre’s lasting influence.

“I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles marked The Beatles’ breakthrough in the United States and is emblematic of the British Invasion.

With its hard-hitting sound and blues-rock influence, Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin, was a testament to the heavier direction of rock.

The 1960s were a golden era for rock and roll, with numerous iconic songs that not only defined the genre but also had a lasting impact on the music industry and culture at large.  You may also read our article about Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, to learn about another music legend.

Jazz

The 1960s saw a great deal of creativity and experimentation in the jazz genre, which was a reflection of the uncertain social and political developments. The 1960s saw a lot of interesting new musical concepts and significant advances in jazz.

Free jazz was popularized during this time, with performers such as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman playing without following fixed rules to produce a more expressive and free sound. Another well-known artist, Miles Davis, began performing modal jazz, which focused more on improvising with various scales than on sticking to preset rhythms. Because of this, the music sounded new and unplanned.

Jazz also began fusing with other genres of music in the 1960s, including rock, soul, and funk, creating a new genre known as jazz fusion. Jazz performers used this era to advocate for civil rights and integrate their music into larger social movements, so it wasn’t just about trying out new sounds. The jazz movement of the 1960s significantly expanded the genre’s boundaries and had a long-lasting influence on the music industry.

Country

Country music is all about storytelling and connecting with people in everyday life. It originated in the southern United States and is recognized for its simple yet touching lyrics about love, heartbreak, and the trials and tribulations of life. Country songs frequently feature a catchy tune and make use of instruments such as the guitar, banjo, and violin. Country music has developed over time, blending with different types such as pop and rock, but it has never lost its down-home feel. Country music legends such as Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Garth Brooks have touched many people’s hearts with their songs. People enjoy country music because it feels authentic and relatable, like listening to a good friend’s story.

Country music continued to engage with fans in the 1960s due to its real storytelling and accessible themes.

The Nashville Sound gained popularity, with softer vocals, sophisticated arrangements, and background choruses aimed at a broader audience.

Artists such as Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves were major representatives of this style, which offered a more refined version of country music.

At the same time, the Bakersfield Sound arose as a backlash to the polished Nashville sound, driven by musicians such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. This style was more raw and rock-influenced, while still retaining its honky-tonk roots.

Surf Rock

Surf rock is a bright and vibrant kind of music that gained popularity in the early 1960s, particularly in California. It’s all about the excitement and adventure of surfing. Early in the 1960s, surf rock—a vibrant and enjoyable genre of music—became extremely popular, particularly in California. It all comes down to the thrill and adventure of surfing.

Electric guitars are frequently used in this music to create a sound that makes you think of waves and the beach, and the tempo is typically quick. Surf rock guitars frequently have a “reverb” effect applied to them, giving them an ocean-like splashy, echoing sound.

Surf rock music was popularized by bands like The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean, and it was ideal for beach parties and coastal road trips. Surf rock reflects the carefree lifestyle of surfers, the sun, and the beach more than just music.

Final thoughts

So, as you can see, the music of the 1960s experienced an evolution – and a revolution. The decade was home to a wide range of eclectic styles that truly defined the 1960s sound. It was a transformative time for music, which naturally flowed with social and cultural upheavals that shook the world at the time. 

The introduction of the new genres (or sub-genres) and the advancement of rock, folk, blues, and soul, among others, contributed to the success of the 1960s as the most significant and influential era in modern music history. It still continues to influence today’s music.