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The Swinging Sound of the Sixties

Updated on February 17, 2016
The Beatles performing on the Ed Sullivan Show, February 9, 1964.
The Beatles performing on the Ed Sullivan Show, February 9, 1964. | Source

One of the most innovative and eclectic decades in music, the 1960s saw the emergence of new musical styles, revolutions in existing genres, changes in production and studio techniques, and the development of new technologies. Decades later, the music of this era continues to delight and influence; even today, many musicians still draw inspiration from the music of the sixties. Following is basic advice to make your music sound more sixties. These articles contain advice on playing various musical styles that were popular in this decade, including psychedelic, surf, folk, and rock.This shall be divided into several parts, each covering a different aspect of sixties music. The first part focuses on composition.

The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys

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As is true of most decades, the majority of music in the sixties was in a major key. However, one thing that sets apart the sixties from the rest of the twentieth century is the revival of modes. Modes appeared in a number of compositions from the sixties, especially in psychedelic and folk styles, although they also appear elsewhere. Examples include “Pipeline” by the Chantays and "White Rabbit" (Phrygian mode), “Blue Jay Way” by the Beatles (Lydian mode), “Lady Jane” by the Rolling Stones, “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen, “LA Woman” by the Doors, and “Dark Star” by the Grateful Dead (Mixolydian mode), “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles, “Scarborough Fair” and “Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, “Light My Fire” by the Doors, and “Incense and Peppermints” by Strawberry Alarm Clock (Dorian mode), and “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles (Mixolydian and Dorian modes).

Major and Minor Keys

As previously stated, the majority of sixties songs were in a major key. However, minor keys were more common in the sixties than in the first half of the twentieth century. A number of minor key songs charted during the decade including “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals, “Love Potion Number Nine” by the Searchers, "Apache" by the Shadows, "A Taste of Honey" by the Beatles, and “California Dreaming” by the Mamas and the Papas. Minor key instrumentals were a staple of surf music; examples include "Miserlou" by Dick Dale, "Walk, Don't Run" by the Ventures, "Out of Limits" by the Marketts, and "Mr. Moto" by the Bel-Airs.

Also in the sixties were songs featuring both major and minor keys. One example is Lesley Gore's “You Don't Own Me,” in which the verses are minor and the chorus is major. This is also seen in “Kicks” by Paul Revere and the Raiders. The Beatles switched this in “Fool on the Hill” which features major key verses and a minor key chorus. “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys changes key numerous times, alternating between major and minor.

Another common combination was minor pentatonic and major scales. Jimi Hendrix used this often, in songs such as “Castles Made of Sand.” It is also found in “Soul Kitchen” by the Doors and “I Saw Her Standing There” by the Beatles among others.

The Doors
The Doors


Many songs of the sixties features standard chord progressions; innumerable hits from the decade were constructed from the I, IV, and V chords; examples include "Wild Thing" by the Troggs, "Sloop John B" by the Beach Boys, "Do Doo Ron Ron" by the Crystals, and "Come a Little Bit Closer" by Jay and the Americans. Some were even simpler; "Heroin" by Velvet Underground simply alternates between the I and IV chord. However, there were some strange chords progressions in the sixties, especially in psychedelic music. Examples include songs such as “A Day in the Life” and "Strawberry Fields Forever" by the Beatles.

The unusual nature of these chords can sometimes be attributed (at least in part) to modes, as in "Light My Fire" by the Doors. Other times, as in the case of many compositions by Brian Wilson, the harmonic progressions are influenced by jazz. Many songs of the 60s contained elements of jazz theory, and jazz elements were a staple of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's songwriting,

Some chord progressions carried over from the 1950s; this is especially true earlier in the decade. Sixties hits using the “50s chord progression” (usually either I-iv-IV-V or I-iv-ii-V) include "Stand By Me" by Ben E. King, "Please Mr. Postman" by the Marvelettes, “Blue Moon” by the Marcels, “This Magic Moment” by the Drifters, "Baby Baby Baby" by Aretha Franklin, "Runaround Sue" by Dion and the Belmonts, "Surfer Girl" by the Beach Boys, "I Only Want to Be With You" by Dusty Springfield, “Happiness is a Warm Gun” by the Beatles, and the chorus of "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes. Another fifties carryover was the “twelve bar blues progression” (I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I). This ubiquitous chord progression, or a variation of it, was used in songs such as “Can't Buy Me Love” by the Beatles, “Surf City” by Jan and Dean, “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris, “Barbara Ann” by the Beach Boys, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan, and the Batman theme song.

It should be also be noted that seventh chords were much more common in the sixties than they are now. Seventh chords are featured prominently in songs such as "Warmth of the Sun" by the Beach Boys, "Let's Dance" by Chris Montez, "Woolly Bully" by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, "I Got You (I Feel Good)" by James Brown, "Daydream Believer" by the Monkees, and "Cherish" by the Association.

Another common sixties chord progression is a descending i-IIV-IV-V tetrachord sometimes known as the “Andalusian cadence,” although it is not an actual cadence. It features in songs such as “Runaway” by Del Shannon, “Walk, Don't Run” by the Ventures, “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys, “Happy Together” by the Turtles, “Hit the Road, Jack” by Ray Charles, “Hazy Shade of Winter” by Simon and Garfunkel, and “I'll Be Back” by the Beatles.

As far as actual cadences, the following video demonstrates some common cadences, all of which appear in many 60's songs.


Many songs of the sixties followed the standard verse-chorus format. However, another popular form was a revival of the standard Tin Pan Alley form sometimes known was the ballad form, or the American popular song form: AABA. The most common variant used in the 60s was an extended version that added a second B section and a fourth A section, making it AABABA. It appears in “Surfer Girl” by the Beach Boys, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by the Shirelles, "I Got Rhythm" by the Happenings, "Blue Moon" by the Marcels, "Crazy" by Patsy Cline, and "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses). This was frequently used by the Beatles, especially in their early work. Examples include “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” "Please Please Me," "A Hard Day's Night," "I Saw Her Standing There," "And I Love Her," and "Yesterday."

Strophic form, or AAA, wasn't very common in the sixties, but it was more common then than it is now. It is predominantly associated with traditional music, appearing in songs such as "House of the Rising Sun" by the Animals and "Scarborough Fair" by Simon and Garfunkel. It is also fairly common in folk music; is used in "The Times They Are a-Changin" by Bob Dylan and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Simon and Garfunkel.

Some songs used more unusual structures. Roy Orbison's “In Dreams” does not contain any repeating parts. “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys consists of diverse and unpredictable segments.

Learn more about 60s music:




Learn about 50s music:

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    • bat115 profile image

      Tim 2 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      I would have to say The Beatles and The beach Boys were the best but all in your hub were great, too!

    • Duane Townsend profile image

      Duane Townsend 2 years ago from Detroit

      This was a good read.