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 won’t be 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 where 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. 

From a lyrical standpoint, 1960s music was pretty much an evolution. 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, of course, also dominated the 1960s airwaves, captivating jaded audiences with bright and catchy tunes, cheery lyrics, and lush instrumentation. Sunshine pop, baroque pop, and bubblegum pop found big but brief popularity towards the end of the decade.

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), in general, remained popular and found success beyond the black circuit. But it was R&B’s off-shoot genres – funk, blues, and soul in particular – that enjoyed newfound popularity during the decade. 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.

Here are some of the top musical genres that defined the 1960s music.

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 Woodie 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.

Psychedelic rock

The 1960s culture gave birth to smatterings of sub-cultures. One of them includes psychedelia, which 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 the 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.

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.”

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).”

Pop

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

1960s pop took into 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.

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.