When you hear “psychedelic,” you undoubtedly think of multicolored imagery and experimental, mind-bending sounds. And you’d be right to think that.
Psychedelia took over the music scene in the late 1960s with help from the hippie movement. Psychedelic concerts were a sea of tie-dye shirts enveloped in a hazy cloud of illicit substances.
But what is psychedelic music? Here, we’ll go over the definition of psychedelic music, its characteristics and history, and top examples.
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Definition: What Is Psychedelic Music?
The definition of psychedelic music is a style of music influenced by psychedelic drugs, a subclass of hallucinogenic drugs that induce unusual states of consciousness. These altered states of consciousness are usually referred to as psychedelic experiences or “trips.”
The classic psychedelic drugs include mescaline (peyote), lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psilocybin (mushrooms or “shrooms), and N, N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Sometimes marijuana and other products containing THC are classified as psychedelics.
Psychedelic Music Characteristics
Psychedelic music has some unique characteristics, including:
- Sound effects
- Innovative use of instruments
- Surreal lyrics
Psychedelic songs often use reverb, phasing, distortion, and reversed sound to get a trippy feel.
Innovative Use of Instruments
The use of feedback with electric guitar and a wah pedal are the most recognizable sounds of psychedelic music. Psychedelic musicians also incorporate Indian instruments, like the sitar and tambura, and an Eastern-influenced style of playing.
When listening to psychedelic music, you’ll hear lengthy instrumental solos, which are almost always improvised.
Most psychedelic songs include bizarre lyrics that cause interpretations to vary widely. Though, most agree that these unusual and dreamlike lyrics allude to the use of hallucinogenic drugs.
7 Examples of Psychedelic Music
Since psychedelic music enjoyed its peak in the 60s, most of these songs are oldies but goodies.
“Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles
This psychedelic song by The Beatles is about a girl with kaleidoscope eyes. We dare you to come up with anything more psychedelic than a kaleidoscope.
Its simultaneously eerie and relaxing melody starts the song, followed by a series of bewildering verses. Listeners are asked to imagine they are on a boat floating on a river beside tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
The lyrics have also been tied to the long-running rumor that the original Paul McCartney died in a car crash and was replaced by another “Paul.” This is because of Lennon’s distorted voice heard near the song’s end, which many people believe says, “I buried Paul.” However, he actually says “cranberry sauce,” fitting in with the rest of the scattered and arbitrary lyrics.
Strawberry Fields Forever was based on a real place—Strawberry Field, a Salvation Army home in Liverpool that John Lennon frequented. There’s a memorial to the late Lennon in Central Park in New York City called Strawberry Fields.
“That's It for the Other One” by Grateful Dead
This is a unique song because it’s broken up into four parts. The four parts are titled “Cryptical Envelopment,” “Quadlibet for Tender Feet,” “The Faster We Go, the Rounder We Get,” and “We Leave the Castle.”
The lyrics are rather morbid, as they are about a man who has to die. There are some references to the classic psychedelic symbol—the kaleidoscope—with lyrics about rainbow colors and rainbow spirals. Listeners are also introduced to the unorthodox character Cowboy Neal, who drives the bus to never-ever land.
This song features all the classics of a psychedelic song: distorted audio, long instrumental solos, and wistful, unconventional lyrics.
“Purple Haze” by The Jimmy Hendrix Experience
Jimi Hendrix stated that the inspiration for this song came from a dream. In the dream, Hendrix was walking on the bottom of the ocean with a purple haze surrounding him, causing him to get lost.
Hendrix also claimed that this song had nothing to do with drugs. But that’s a little hard to believe, considering the band was heavily into drugs at the time, and the lyrics portray what it’s like to be on an acid trip.
The lyrics speak about a purple haze in the brain, making things seem different than they used to. Hendrix wonders if he’s happy or miserable with this purple haze causing him to go out of his mind.
Whether it’s a song portraying the ethereal feeling of being in a dream or, as many of us believe, about tripping on hallucinogens, it’s one of the band’s most famous songs.
“Light My Fire” by The Doors
Cue another song ostensibly about—you guessed it—drugs. The lyrics of this song erroneously lead listeners to think this is a song about smoking illegal substances, hence “light my fire.” The song gives further credence to this theory, with Jim Morrison singing that he and his lady friend can’t get much higher.
However, this is one song that is definitely not about drugs. It was mostly written by guitarist Robby Krieger, who wanted to write about something universal. This leads him to the four elements: water, air, earth, and fire. Krieger chose fire.
Between the verses are some mesmerizing solos by Ray Manzarek on piano and John Densmore on drums. It’s easy to get lost in this song, making it one of the top psychedelic songs of the 1960s.
“Interstellar Overdrive” by Pink Floyd
This is a prime example of Pink Floyd’s more psychedelic-focused music. The song was written by the band’s co-founder and lead guitarist, Syd Barrett, who was an avid user of hallucinogenic drugs. He was asked to leave the band in 1968 due to concerns about his mental health and drug use.
The melody is a rhapsody, often changing tempos and rhythm. It’s also very chaotic at times, with what sounds like numerous instruments playing on top of one another.
It sets itself apart from the other songs mentioned here because it has no lyrics. That’s right—this nearly ten-minute-long song is pure psychedelic instrumentalism at its finest.
“Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream
This song has one of the most famous intros of all time—we can almost guarantee you’ll recognize it the second you hear it.
The intro was written by the band’s bass guitarist, Jack Bruce, who stated that it was inspired by a Jimi Hendrix concert he had been to.
While the chilled-out melody is most definitely psychedelic, the lyrics are about something other than drugs for a change. However, the song still encompasses the hippie movement’s values, as it’s all about love.
If you want to find more songs about love, check out this list of the best 70s love songs.
5 Top Psychedelic Musicians
Not surprisingly, the top five psychedelic musicians featured in the top seven psychedelic songs. They include:
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
We’ve already covered “Purple Haze,” but other songs like “All Along the Watchtower” and “Hey Joe” make The Jimi Hendrix Experience one of the top psychedelic bands.
The band, known to fans simply as “The Experience,” formed in 1966. It comprised Jimi Hendrix, Noel Redding, and Mitch Mitchell.
The Experience produced three albums: Are You Experienced??, Axis: Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland. Of these albums, Are You Experienced??, arguably their most psychedelic, garnered the most critical acclaim.
By 1969, Redding was increasingly growing frustrated with Hendrix’s unpredictability, primarily attributed to Hendrix’s heavy drug use. In that same year, the band broke up. Redding started another band, Hendrix pursued a solo career before passing away in 1970 at 27, and Mitchell produced a few songs before retiring.
Pink Floyd is an English rock band formed in 1965. They became popular quickly, as they were one of Britain's first psychedelic rock bands and helped usher in the psychedelia movement.
The original band members included Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and Richard Wright. In 1967, David Gilmour joined the band and eventually replaced Barrett.
During their early years, the press described them as bizarre and called their performances improvisational madness. And according to Rolling Stone in 1967, they had an “unmistakably psychedelic sound.”
Pink Floyd has taken many hiatuses over the years, with their active years including 1965-1994, 2005, 2007, 2013-14, and 2022-present. They’re the only band on this list that still performs, though only two members represent the group currently—Gilmour and Mason.
Grateful Dead was an American rock band that started in 1965. The original members included Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan, Phil Lesh, and Bill Kreutzmann. The band members changed a lot throughout their active years (1965-1995) until deciding to dismember after Garcia’s death in 1995.
Grateful Dead was one of the first groups to have a cult following called “Deadheads.” It was common for Grateful Dead concerts to be crowded with Deadheads dressed in colorful hippie garb.
Deadheads stated the performances had the “X factor,” something intangible that elevated their bodies, minds, and souls to a higher level. So, Grateful Dead’s sound and stage presence certainly fit in with the psychedelic quality of inducing altered states of consciousness.
The Doors were another American rock band that started in 1965, with Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, and John Densmore.
Within three years, they gained a lot of attention with songs like “Light My Fire,” “Touch Me,” and “Hello, I Love You,” songs which all had a mellow, psychedelic quality to them.
However, the band’s fame was cut short by Morrison's death in 1971. Like Jimi Hendrix, Morrison died at 27, making him the second lead vocalist on this list to join the 27 Club, a name assigned to a group of famous people who died at 27.
Cream was an English rock band that saw its beginnings in 1966. Its members included Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker.
While their formative songs are clearly psychedelic, their live performances were even more so. Five-minute songs like “N.S.U.,” “Sweet Wine,” and “Toad” became long, meandering 20-minute songs featuring improv solos and lyrics.
They only had a brief moment in the psychedelic spotlight, as the band broke up in 1968 after tensions rose among its members over sound and style.
They reunited for a few gigs in 1995 and 2005, and it was rumored they might reunite for a 2015 show. However, Bruce died in 2014, followed five years later by Baker. Clapton is the only surviving member of the group.
The History of Psychedelic Music
Psychedelic music finds its origins in the psychedelia movement of the late 1960s. The psychedelia movement was a subculture included in the hippie movement. This subculture involved people who were interested in expanding their minds with the use of psychedelic drugs.
When the 1960s came to an end, the 1970s embraced a style of music called post-psychedelic music. This style was more hard-rock and punky than its predecessor. Bands that made post-psychedelic music include Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath.
Also, during the 70s, another psychedelic music style came on the scene—neo-psychedelia. Neo-psychedelia takes more characteristics from pop music than punk or rock.
Neo-psychedelia was embraced by the early 1980s Paisley Unground movement in Los Angeles. Famous bands that made neo-psychedelia include the Soft Boys, the Teardrop Explodes, and Echo & the Bunnymen.
In the late 1980s, at the beginning of the popularity of rap and hip hop, psychedelic hip hop emerged. This is a style of hip hop that samples the mellow tunes of psychedelic music.
Psychedelic music enjoyed brief resurgences in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Madchester, a cultural movement in Manchester, England, and again in the late 1990s with the Elephant 6 collective.
A few styles of music were partly inspired by psychedelic music, including house, acid house, trance, rave, and new rave music. So, while the original style is over half a century old, you can still hear its influence on music today.
What Is Psychedelic Music? Final Thoughts
From kaleidoscopes to colorful haze to disordered rhythms, psychedelic music aims to recreate the altered state of consciousness induced by hallucinogenic drugs. The sound dominated the late 1960s rock scene and still continues to influence musicians in the present day.
Now, if someone asks you, “What is psychedelic music?” you can impress them with your knowledge!
If you enjoyed this list, check out other sounds from the 60s.