Popular music of the 1960s

The 1960s were a time of creativity and innovation and many new styles of popular music developed in the aftermath of rock 'n' roll.

British beat music

Many British pop groups in the 1960s were heavily influenced by American blues and R&B. These included The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

R&B stands for rhythm and blues – a style of black American music combining jazz and blues which emerged in the 1940s - not to be confused with today's R&B.

The Beatles helped to reshape Western pop music and were the most successful band ever. Every album was a huge hit from the early material on Please Please Me (1963) to the hugely innovative Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).

The Beatles

The Beatles

They helped to create a distinctly British sound which used:

  • British (rather than American) accents
  • standard song forms
  • distinctive chord sequences and vocal harmonies
  • rhythmic guitar work
  • simple melodies
  • clever lyrics

George Martin was their imaginative producer. John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote most of their own material.

British beat music

The Beatles had a huge influence and pop groups sprang up all over the UK usually writing their own songs.

The Kinks were a four-piece band who had a string of hits during the 1960s including Waterloo Sunset, and Dedicated Follower Of Fashion.

Their songs were short and punchy with thought-provoking lyrics and elements of music hall. Songwriter Ray Davies' lyrics often used images of everyday British life.

Groups such as The Kinks, The Small Faces and The Who helped to establish a British tradition of:

  • guitar-driven pop groups
  • a classic line-up of lead guitar, bass guitar, drums and vocals
  • verse and chorus songs, rich in hooks and melodic interest
  • conventional chord sequences
The Kinks

The Kinks

The chorus:

  • sets the refrain of the lyrics and often contains the title words
  • usually returns several times, always with the same words
  • is normally the 'catchiest' part of the song

The verse usually has different words with each repetition.

  • a riff is a short, repeated melodic pattern, often forming the background to a solo or vocal line. It is usually one to four bars long.
  • a hook is a short catchy melodic idea designed to be instantly memorable
  • guitar licks are short solo phrases that can be heard at the ends of some of the vocal phrases
  • fills are short flourishes used to fill a gap between phrases and are often played on drums

1960s soul music

1960s soul music was a style of black American music characterised by:

A young Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson in The Jackson Five

  • gospel influenced vocals
  • lyrical soulful melodies
  • an emphasis on the rhythm section
  • large horn sections (trumpets, saxophones and trombones)

The most famous record labels were Tamla Motown, Stax and Atlantic.

Tamla Motown was an all black record company set up by Berry Gordy in Detroit.

Artists included The Four Tops and The Jackson Five. Stax was based in Memphis. Artists included Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.

Listen to this sample from My Lover's Prayer by Otis Redding. Notice the soulful gospel-influenced singing and the prominent horn section.

1960s Jamaica - ska and rocksteady

1960s Jamaican music has had a big influence on mainstream pop music. The dance styles ska and rocksteady were the precursors of reggae.


Jimmy Cliff

Ska music:

  • fused American rhythm 'n' blues (R&B) with mento rhythms
  • used electric guitars and jazzy horn section
  • is fast with characteristic off-beat jumpy rhythms

Artists include the Skatalites and Jimmy Cliff.

Listen to the off-beat quavers in the ska song El Pussy Cat.


Listen to the rocksteady song You Can Get it if You Really Want played by Desmond Dekker and the Aces. Notice the drum emphasis on beats 2 and 4 and the steady 4/4 beat of the bass guitar.


  • rhythms are more relaxed than ska
  • stresses on beats 2 and 4
  • loud bass guitar playing steady 4/4 beat
  • political themes in lyrics

Protest song

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

The 1960s was a time of protest with the Cold War, the Vietnam war and unrest over black civil rights giving rise to protest songs.

Folk music clubs were found all over Britain and the USA. Singers usually accompanied themselves on guitar.

Bob Dylan was the most famous and influential protest song writer with best-selling albums such as The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963).

The lyrics of Dylan's songs use strong poetic imagery and often have a political message.

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix

The guitarist and singer-songwriter Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) was a hugely important 1960s musician.

He was undoubtedly the most accomplished guitarist ever heard in pop music. His best improvisations took the guitar beyond the conventional limits of the instrument.

His playing was virtuosic using a wide vocabulary of techniques, effects and tricks. Albums include Are You Experienced (1967) and Electric Ladyland (1968).

Composing ideas

  1. Write the chorus of a 1960s style pop song. The line-up should include guitars, drums, lead singer and backing vocals. Use a 4/4 time signature, simple melodic ideas and a repeating chord sequence based mainly on I IV and V. Include some or all of the following in your chorus: a bass line riff, strummed guitar chords, a vocal hook, drum fills, some nonsense words such as 'na na', and sing-along echoes in the backing vocals
  2. Compose a rocksteady style piece in 4/4. Use strong accents on beats two and four with most of the instruments playing the accompaniment resting on beat one. Use a two-chord sequence such as C to D minor or D minor to A minor. Use a prominent bass line.

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