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Defining Music of the 1960s: Characteristics and Great Songs

How do you react when Michelle is a professional freelance writer who loves music, poetry, pets, and the arts. She is a techno-geek as well.

“The thing the sixties did was to show us the possibilities and the responsibility that we all had. It wasn't the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.”

— John Lennon

What our favorite Beatle, John Lennon, says in the quote above sums up accurately what the music of the exciting era of the 1960s was. He, of course, having been one of the pioneers of its fascinating, unique and catchy music.

I am not a child of the 1960s, mine being the Guns and Roses and the later Bon Jovi era. Yet it is the edgy but lyrical quality of some of the music of the '60s that prompts me to appreciate it the most.

That era was a time when excitement ran rife in the music scene. Expressive, lyrical tunes, hip gyrating pieces, and numbers that provoked the thoughts of all who heard were produced. It was a time when social issues were daringly broached.

Let me take you on a journey of its music, reminisce with you on some of the issues of the time and refresh your memories of some of the greatest artists of the era.

The Stones in concert

The Stones in concert

Breaking Convention and Standing Up to Oppression

Flower Power

The societal change of Flower Power came about, with many taking the idea of “make love, not war,” at its literal premise. Ideas surrounding sexuality became more liberalized and accepted, though it remains contentious as to whether that is a change for the better.

Though avant-garde and definitely edgy, the Flower Power movement had the altruistic intent of bringing about peace in the wake of the heavy wars that were fought in the 20th century.


Womens’ rights became more pronounced. Feminism, as it is also known, is a collection of ideologies aimed at promoting equality in the economic, political and social rights of women and there was no better time to enforce them than in the 1960s when liberation in many forms was present.

The Civil Rights Movement

The movement sought equality for all and was instrumental in achieving that aim. An outstanding tenet of the movement was that the freedom of the individual was to be cherished and protected from any form of infringement. It was essentially a protest against any form of discrimination of another human being.

Martin Luther King summed up the movement best in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

For that was the spirit of the movement, which also spawned thoughts on such social issues from the beloved musicians of the time.


The '60s was also a time of birth for environmentalism or addressing environmental concerns. The movement advocates the preservation, restoration and the protection of the natural environment and all its resources. It was also the time when ethical relations to the environment, the land and appreciating biodiversity was highlighted.

"Like a Rolling Stone," Bob Dylan

Music of the 1960s

The defining music of the 1960s was truly varied in terms of genre and and style. We see the birth of forms of rock music, jazz as well as folk revival.

No matter which genre we speak of, all have one thing in common: they shaped the music that we know and love to this day.

Folk Revival

The sixties was a time when the traditional music of old was given a fresh new look with new compositions written in a traditional style. Appalachian folk saw a new rebirth, and singers like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger emerged as a result of this movement.

The hallmark of this movement was to combine elements of folk and rock. Songs like Mr. Tambourine Man and Like a Rolling Stone gained popularity.

Grateful Dead - Ripple

Psychedelic Rock

Psychedelia was the name of a group of people who used psychedelic substances. This, combined with the folk rock revival gave rise to a new form of 60s rock - psychedelic rock.

A pioneer song of this form of rock was the Psychedelic sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. Groups like the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish and Jefferson Airplane helped to make the sound popular.

Surf Music

Characterized by being very instrumental, strong reverb on guitars, and lyrics on the surf scene, surf music was popularized by none other than groups like the Beach Boys, the Ventures, the Atlantic, the Surfaris and the Champs. The music was essentially the sound of the Southern California area.

It has two forms: Surf Rock, popularized by artists like Dick Dale who used strong guitar reverb and Surf Pop popularized by none other than the Beach Boys.

Garage Rock

Amateurish rock music released from a garage because popular during this time as well. Composed mainly by students, it highlighted the ins and outs of high school life. It ranged from crude one-chord music to near studio-quality variations like that performed by the Knickerbockers, the Remains and Fifth Estate.

Leonnie Mack, "Safety Susie"

Blues/Blues Rock

Pioneered by guitarist Leonnie Mack, the sound took off in the mid-1960s with performances and record releases by Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, the great Jimi Hendrix and the Allman Brothers Band.

Hendrix’s guitar style came to be one of the most emulated in the 1960s. His band, the Experience, gained wild popularity even though it was only around for a short period of time.

Another Blues-rock pioneer who was popular way past the sixties was none other than Eric Clapton, who played blues with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and earned the name Slowhand. Changing the face of blues well past the '60s, Clapton's Wonderful Tonight and the poignant Tears In Heaven in which he mourns the loss of his son became iconic songs and still are, to this day.

Eric Clapton Slowhand

Roots Rock

Roots rock was a departure from the excesses of psychedelic rock and was exactly what its name said it was—the music of rock and roll going back to its country and folk roots.

Rock music, therefore, took on a more southern flavor, Bob Dylan spearheaded roots rock when he recorded Blonde on Blonde. Solo artists like Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, and Lowell George also dominated the roots rock scene.

Progressive Rock

Progressive Rock marked a change in the 1960s music scene with musicians employing different instruments as an accompaniment for their music. Famous groups like the Beatles, Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones employed the use of harpsichords in their music from the mid-1960s.

Wind and string introductions were popular among musicians during this time. A good example is Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale

Little Eva, "Locomotion"


Chubby Checker was a pioneer during the pop phase of the time, with his recording of The Twist by Hank Ballard. It started a whole new dance craze.

Gerry Goffin and Carole King influenced pop music as well, writing the first number one hit by a girl group, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow." Besides making the Shirelles popular, it also propelled pop to new heights and proved the power of women in music.

Here is a 1962 hit, the Locomotion, performed by Little Eva.

"Please Mr. Postman," the Marvelettes

R&B and Soul Music

The era saw the development of Motown as a testament to pop-influenced soul. It began its long run with songs like "Please Mr. Postman" by the Marvelettes.

Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and James Brown led the soul movement. We cannot forget to RESPECT Aretha Franklin, with her rendition of the song and numbers like "I've Never Loved Aa Man."

Jim Reeves, "I Love You Because"

Country Music

Country music is evergreen and we will never tire of listening to it. The development of this soothing form of music was marked by conflicting triumphant and tragic circumstances. Although country was at its peak, tragedy marred the circumstances with several top stars losing their lives in plane crashes.

The Nashville Sound characterized the country music of the era. Singers like Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold, Ray Price, Patsy Cline, Floyd Cramer and Roger Miller helped to bring the sound forth with songs like "He’ll Have to Go" and "I Can’t Stop Loving You."

The sound became more polished in the latter part of the decade and became known as Countrypolitan, used mainly by stars like Glen Campbell and Tammy Wynette. Charley Pride became the first African American superstar in country music.

Stars like Dolly Parton, who gained fame in the Porter Wagoner show and Johnny Cash became immensely popular.

World Music

World music because a great influence on the popular music of the era, with groups like the Beatles becoming interested in Hare Krishna culture. Ravi Shankar, the famous sitar player, also played in various music festivals.

Final Thoughts

The music of the 1960s is best described as an edgy, eclectic blend of variety. There was something for everyone during this time, which will be cherished in the heart of many.

Here, I would also like to thank the writers who have provided wonderful insights by answering the question “What are the characteristics of music of the '60s?” I am amazed at some of their sharing! Do visit each of their profiles.

© 2013 Michelle Liew


messi on March 22, 2018:

The music back in 1960s are awesome, but the music today are more dance if and more happy, and sad.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on July 06, 2013:

Thanks, Glim! This has always been always a great generation!

Claudia Porter on July 03, 2013:

What a great compilation of the styles of 60s music. Love them all and the majority of the music in my collection is from the 1960s.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 30, 2013:

Thanks for the link, Peggy!!!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 29, 2013:

This is a great hub especially for those of us who grew up with music of the 1960s. I am going to add a link from this hub to mine titled "Dance Craze ~ Twist Nostalgia in 1960 Era ~ Chubby Checker"

This will make a nice addition! Thanks for writing this. Up, useful, interesting and happy to share!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 29, 2013:

Hi Janet, thanks for sharing! This era certainly had good music!

Janet Giessl from Georgia country on June 28, 2013:

I love this era, the music and the people though I'm a child of the 80's. Your hub was very interesting to read and there were also people and music I haven't heard before. So this was also educational. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 27, 2013:

Hi Jackie! This era is fascinating musically and there is so much more to discuss...can't finish all in one hub! Thanks for sharing!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 27, 2013:

I think it could be a windows settings for some. They somehow can't run the video when it's minimized. Will look into it, Nell!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 27, 2013:

The music of now, the hip hop generation tends to be a little cut and paste if you listen to it indeed, Peach Purple. And the lyrics a little rude at times. Thanks for sharing!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 27, 2013:

Wish I'd had been a teen then, myself. A real musical revolution.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 27, 2013:

Yes it was! thanks for sharing, Elias!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 27, 2013:

Classical music had various stages of development, from the baroque to the romantics too. Thanks for sharing, and studying the 60's as a degree must have been a blast!

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on June 27, 2013:

This was a really fun hub. Some of these songs I had never heard so that was something good too, thank you! ^

I just played the Little Eva and it worked for me.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 27, 2013:

I would think so, Paul. Certainly, he had his own style of rapping! Thanks for sharing!

Nell Rose from England on June 27, 2013:

Hi michelle, very enjoyable hub, the 60s was a little before my time, well, I was a baby! lol! but the music was great! by the way the video Little Eva Locomotion doesn't work, it says its too small, was looking forward to dancing to it! lol!

peachy from Home Sweet Home on June 27, 2013:

wow such a long list! I love the beatles, the beach boys, and eric clapton music. Missed those old songs. Compare to the latest music era, old classic songs are better in terms of lyrics and rhythm. Nice hub. Voted up

Romeos Quill from Lincolnshire, England on June 27, 2013:

What a great Hub! It makes me wish I'd been a teenager in the sixties.

A really well-presented potted social history of that special time, and thank you to Mhatter99 for bringing it to our attention.Fabulous music, especially the ' Because ' track by the Fab Four :)

All the best,

Romeo's Quill

Elias Zanetti from Athens, Greece on June 27, 2013:

Excellent hub, great presentation and music videos! The '60s was a fascinating era for popular music and their legacy and influence is still visible! Voted and shared!

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on June 27, 2013:

Michelle, you have done a wonderful job here. I love your analysis of the various types of music around at that time - I had to study the 60s during my degree and was amazed to discover that classical music also went through a similar renaissance as rock and roll - some of it was very new, unusual and avant garde whilst some of it actually took influences from the 12 th and 13th century - it must have been an intensely creative time.

Paul Richard Kuehn from Udorn City, Thailand on June 27, 2013:


I find this hub very interesting because I lived through the 60s as a young man. Even today, I often revisit the music of the 60s when I am nostalgic. I loved all of the music which you masterfully described in this hub. Bob Dylan I liked very much for the messages that were in his songs. Besides being a blues and folk singer, I think Dylan was one of the first successful rappers. Voted up and sharing with followers. Also Pinning, Tweeting, and sharing on Facebook.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 27, 2013:

Thanks, MHatter!!

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on June 27, 2013:

Great job on this! You chose the music well. shared

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 26, 2013:

Thanks, Audrey!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 26, 2013:

Hi Jean, thanks for sharing. Guess that Surf music was so overwhelmed by the beach boys that it came to be associated with that! It is, because of the California idea,though a large part of it, as you say was instrumental. Will bring Dick Dale in! I hope they see that there was so much more to the sixties than just Surfers or Hippies.Interesting that your son was part of a Surf group!

Jean Bakula from New Jersey on June 26, 2013:

Thanks for an interesting "blast from the past!" Micky Sr. is right though, many don't realize "surf music" is instrumental, and not like the Beach Boys at all. Think of the theme to Hawaii Five-O. My son learned to love 60's music from us, not liking rap and what was popular in his own generation. He is currently in a surf group playing a lot of Dick Dale stuff, complete with reverb tank tube amp, and all the 60's equipment that can still be found. They still make a lot of it for people to make the sound authentic. I hope that in the future people understand the music in the context it was meant. It was a time of great social change, and great social unrest. But people were optimistic, and really thought they could make a difference. I worry people will characterize the 60's as a bunch of high hippies rolling around in the mud at Woodstock. It was so much more that all that. I love Ripple, it's one of my favorite songs, since we all have to travel our own path. Nice job!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 26, 2013:

Thanks, Pam! Have decided to give good old Elvis a rest here, because I'd mentioned him in other hubs. The British Invasion really made an impact, though!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 26, 2013:

I think you covered the music of the 60's very well considering the music changed so much when we went from Elvis and motown to the British invasion. As I was alive then, I remember most of this music well. Great hub!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 26, 2013:

That's the thing with the 60s music, Lady Deonne, it is exciting and transcends generations. Thanks for sharing!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 26, 2013:

Thanks, Alecia!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 26, 2013:

Yup, those two groups definitely made things exciting, mperrotet, as did Baez!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 26, 2013:

There's just so much to say and many great artists to cover....not enough for one hub! Thanks for sharing!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 26, 2013:

Thanks, J9! My kind of music!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 26, 2013:

It was indeed an exciting era....many great acts! Thanks for sharing!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 26, 2013:

Thanks for sharing, vibe sites! Nope, it wasn't. More California Girls!! Thanks for sharing!

Audrey Howitt from California on June 26, 2013:

I loved Judy Collins in the late 60s and early 70's-- great hub Michelle!

Deonne Anderson from Florence, SC on June 26, 2013:

The music of the 60's will, in my opinion, live on in our hearts and lives forever. You have captured these wonderful moments in full details. What is so amazing to me is the love that today's youth have for the music. As a therapist who worked mostly with adolescents and their families, I was always flabbergasted when my young clients sang along with songs that I listened and danced to as a young girl. One of my neighbors has two boys, ages (12) and (14). He and the boys perform music from the late 50's and 60's in schools, neighborhood activities, and at private parties. What I noticed was that during their performance at a neighborhood block party was that many teens and children not only danced to the music, but also sang along. These kids today are mesmerized by the music of the 60's. My daughter loves the music of the 60's and often remarks that she wishes that she had been

a teen during those years. Thanks for the memories! Voted up and sharing.

Alecia Murphy from Wilmington, North Carolina on June 26, 2013:

Great hub! My parents are boomers so I grew up with a good deal of this music. It is interesting how much modern music took its cue from 1960s music.

Margaret Perrottet from San Antonio, FL on June 26, 2013:

I remember those years so well. When I was in my junior year in high school I loved Joan Baez. I was bored with much of the pop music, and remember how exciting it was when the real revolution hit with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. It was pure excitement from there. Great review of the fabulous music of that time. Voted up and interesting.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 26, 2013:

My time, my place, my music. All you said and much, much more is true of that great music. Well done!

Janine Huldie from New York, New York on June 26, 2013:

Ok, seriously loved this article Michelle, because I just happen to love so much of the music from the 1960s. Growing up with my parents who were teens during this time, they truly introduced me to so many of the greats from this time era. Thank you so much for compiling this and sharing it with us!! Have, of course, voted up and share, too!!

Mary Craig from New York on June 26, 2013:

You've certainly covered a lot of ground here Michelle and in so doing paint a perfect picture of the sixties music. It was my music so I can speak with some authority (well, sort of).

The sixties music was the 'everything music'...we embraced it all. It was a breakthrough in that it was all the things you mention.

Voted up, useful, interesting, and sharing.

vibesites from United States on June 26, 2013:

I'd also love to go to that era if there were a time machine and experience Beatlemania before my eyes!

Jan and Dean were also notable surf rockers. I once smugly thought "The Little Old Lady From Pasadena" was a Beach Boys song when I couldn't find it under the Beach Boys category.

Nice hub you've got there. Voted up. Thanks for posting! :)

Mary Hyatt from Florida on June 26, 2013:

The 1960's was an exciting time for many reasons. Music was great back then. I remember seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show when they first came to the US.

Great Hub, voted Up and shared.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on June 26, 2013:

On the characteristics of music of the 1960s.