Sometimes, it takes paragraph after paragraph to get an idea on what kind of a person you're dealing with. Sometimes characters are so complex, so deep and nuanced, that an entire episode is devoted to some esoteric part of their back story.
And sometimes you can figure out everything you need to know about someone as soon as they get into their car. Taste in music, especially when it's out of the ordinary, can tell you more about a character than a monologue or flashback ever could. A little well-placed Mozart or Chopin lends an outwardly simple-minded individual a bit of mystery and depth. Someone listening to the Beatles, even though it's 2237, and they're on Mars? Safe to say they're a bit old-fashioned. And if they listen to 80s rock, they may become a victim of AC/DC
Music can convey a lot more than just what's in the lyrics, so matching this song with that character, while a bit of a cheat, is a fantastic way to convey a lot about a character in not a lot of time. This also does wonders to convey a deeper side to a character that can easily be considered one-dimensional. A mousy librarian suddenly takes on a wilder angle when their iPod is blaring Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.
This trope does not refer to a character's theme song, if they have one. This refers to diegetic music, often called Source Music
, where the other characters can hear it.
, where a specific tune is used to signify a character. See also Establishing Character Music
- Reservoir Dogs. The pairing of Mr. Blonde's Torture Porn with 'Stuck in the Middle With You' by Stealers Wheel helps to showcase how seriously he doesn't take the situation.
- Star Trek. In the J. J. Abrams reboot, our first encounter with a young James T. Kirk is him hanging up on his step-father in favor of blasting the Beastie Boys over the radio, establishing his disregard for authority even before the character says a single word.
- Marvel Cinematic Universe:
- The Silence of the Lambs. While in the prison cell in Tennessee, Hannibal Lecter listens to classical music just before his prison break. This tells the audience that even though he's a psychopathic cannibal, he's still Wicked Cultured.
- Three Kings. One of the soldiers wants to listen to heavy metal music while going into battle. Another soldier criticizes his musical choice and suggest they go into battle with something soothing to calm their nerves and plays an easy-listening song, showing a definite personality clash.
- Transformers. Bumblebee, the first Transformer our protagonist meets, actually has no real voice capabilities, and instead does all of his vocalizations through playing songs on his stereo. This is the trope cranked Up to Eleven.
- The movie I, Robot starts with Stevie Wonder singing "Superstition" to wake up Detective Spooner. This certifies Spooner as retro, showing at least one reason for him to dislike robots. The song also foreshadows his journey through the movie. In the same vein, the song that plays when the scientist gets incredibly flustered by the retro cd-player: 'Somebody Save Me'...
- Hilariously subverted in the opening of Office Space, where a character listens to bad-ass rap music on his way to work, but then is shown to get nervous about a harmless street vendor approaching his car.
- 10 Things I Hate About You. Kat Stratford is introduced blasting Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" in her car.
- Whip It. Razor drives up playing "Hold On" by Wilson Phillips in his Dune Buggy, wearing clothes that mark him as a refugee from The '80s.
- "Hold On" also makes an appearance in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle on a tape in a truck belonging to a group of supposed "extreme" sports enthusiasts signifying that they're all talk.
- The family in Funny Games listens to opera music in their car which establishes them as being of the middle-class. The villain duo listens to Death Metal.
- Monsters University: While Mike takes the guys to Monsters Inc., Squish's mom - a sweet and cheery person - stays in the car to "listen to my tunes", after which the first couple of split seconds of Mastodon's "Island" can be heard.
- A Goofy Movie. Early on, Max and Goofy have a Dueling Banjos moment over the radio between Goofy's 'High Hopes' and Max's acid rock. Not only does this show a lot about each character, it highlights the generation gap between them, all without saying an actual word.
- The Martian and its film version provide a third-person version of this Trope: after being stranded on Mars, the only music and TV Mark Watney has available is that which is on a portable drive that tough-nut Commander Lewis left behind during the evac. The drive is full of nothing but Disco music (like ABBA and Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" (which Watney sarcastically calls the least Disco song Lewis had on the drive)) and episodes of Seventies shows like The Dukes of Hazzard and Happy Days. The moment he manages to contact Earth, one of his first messages is a request for NASA to figure out a way to beam him music — something, anything, but Disco.
- Defiance. Our first encounter with Nolan and Irisa, the two main characters of the show, has an awkward silence broken with Nolan turning on the radio, only to hear Johnny Cash and June Carter singing 'Jackson', which, in the year 2046, is more than a bit country and old-fashioned.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation:
- Commander Will Riker's love of jazz shows a softer, easier-going side than his military bearing suggests.
- At one point in "Suddenly Human", Picard walks past the guest quarters where the Talarian-raised human teenager Jono is staying, and hears this blasting in the room. Jono's enjoyment of "alba ra" seems to signify he's a typical teenager.
- Jekyll establishes Hyde's personality through his fondness for Disney songs.
- Kamen Rider Double: Shotaro fashions himself a Hardboiled Detective, but frequently undermines himself and winds up what the other characters call "half-boiled"; one of the ways this happens is that he not only listens to Idol Singers but sings along.
- The second season of Millennium saw Frank Black's character being fleshed out through details like his love of Bobby Darin.
- Breaking Bad does this a lot. Oftentimes doubles as foreshadowing, as the lyrics or titles of the songs tend to somehow be relevant to events later in the episode.
- In an episode of The Mentalist Jane inducts that the victim did not drive himself out into the woods and commit suicide but rather someone killed him and drove him out to dump the body, because the radio in the vic's pickup truck was tuned to a Hard Rock station and the victim was only interested in the classics.
- George Carlin did a dissemination of the AM radio dial, wondering why it ends at "the hopelessness of 54. What kind of good stuff are we missing on 310?"
- Halo: Combat Evolved: The Apocalyptic Log that Master Chief finds indicates that Sergeant Johnson has a love of classic rock not shared by most of his troops.
- Medal of Honor: An early scene in the 2010 game start with the POV character riding shotgun in a truck through an Afghan village, the driver a tanned bearded fellow in local attire... who immediately reveals himself as an American soldier by complaining about your character's preference for local music as he shuts off the stereo.
- In the Alice Isn't Dead episode "Alice," the long haul trucker Narrator briefly sings along with Weezer's "Say it Ain't So," a story of Parental Abandonment and following in their footsteps by replicating their addictive behaviors. The Narrator proceeds to explain, via audio diaries, how she struggled to admit that her wife Alice had suddenly left her, and upon discovering that Alice was secretly caught up in some sort of cross-country spanning Conspiracy, abruptly quit her job and started investigating, by travelling cross-country as an employee of one of the companies involved.
- Lovely Little Losers: In the interviews for the cereal challenge, Ben asks Balth and Peter each what their favorite song of the moment is. Balth mentions (or, rather, Ben mentions for him) "Lay and Love" by Bonnie "Prince" Billy. Peter singles out "Glare" by Sheep, Dog & Wolf. At a time when Balthazar is being uncommunicative about his feelings, and Peter is outright lying, the songs give an idea of what's actually going on in their heads. (Peter's headspace is, apparently, terrifying.)