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AM/FM Characterization

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Sometimes you can figure out everything you need to know about someone as soon as you get into their car. Their 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 Characterization...

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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, but only to diegetic music, often called Source Music, where the other characters can hear it.

Compare Leitmotif, where a specific tune is used to signify a character. See also Establishing Character Music.


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Examples:

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    Comic Strips 

    Fan Works 

    Films — Animated 
  • 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.
  • All Dogs Go to Heaven: When Charlie meets up with Carface after escaping from the pound, Charlie turns on the radio so he can listen to some jazz while they talk, while Carface turns it off so they can just talk business. They go back and forth until Carface has enough and pulls out the knob to turn off the radio for good.
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    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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
    • Star Trek (2009). 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' "Sabotage" (a song that In-Universe is a hundred-plus years old) over the radio, establishing his disregard for authority (and a certain degree of love for Good Old Ways, even if they clash with Federation standards) even before the character says a single word. The detail about "Sabotage" being so old it's considered "classic" (and Kirk loving it) gets a Call-Back gag on Star Trek Beyond.
    • Star Trek: First Contact used Roy Orbison's "Boogie Oogie" on the jukebox and Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" during the first flight to convey Zefram Cochrane's old-fashioned personality.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • Iron Man: Tony's Establishing Character Moment involves rolling in a Humvee as part of a military convoy, listening to "Back in Black" by AC/DC.
    • Iron Man 2:
      • After Tony Stark's birthday party is ruined by an Iron Man suit-wearing James Rhodes, Tony requests for the DJ to play Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" as a way to show he doesn't take Rhodes' threat even remotely seriously.
        Tony Stark: Give me a phat beat to beat my buddy's ass to.
      • By way of contrast, Justin Hammer opens his presentation at the Stark Expo doing a shuffle to "Pick Up the Pieces" by Average White Band.
      • Earlier in the film he dives into the Stark Expo playing "Shoot to Thrill" by AC/DC, which will be repeated in...
    • The Avengers, when he hacks the Quinjet's PA System before flying in to confront Loki in Germany. No matter where he goes, he has to create a spectacle. In a more subtle example, he wears a Black Sabbath shirt after that.
    • Guardians of the Galaxy: At the beginning of the movie, Peter Quill's on a dead world and enters a ruin that wouldn't seem out of place for an Adventurer Archaeologist... and then he turns on an old Walkman and starts dancing through the place to "Come and Get Your Love" without a care in the world, even kicking away some of the local vermin. The movie's trailer used "Hooked on a Feeling" to give the same sense of irreverence. Peter's Walkman and mixtape of classic pop songs are reminders of Earth, and specifically his mother, who had died from cancer the night he was abducted.
    • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues it, turning "Brandy" by Looking Glass into an Expository Theme Tune for Meredith Quill's affair with Ego the Living Planet. Ego, of course, misses the point that the song's about Brandy, not the sailor. Rocket has also mellowed out a bit since the first film, represented by how he's developed a taste for Peter's music; he creates something when he, Yondu, and Groot decide to ruin some mutineers, and Rocket elects to do it to the tune of "Come a Little Bit Closer" by Jay and the Americans.
    • Glimpsed in Thor: Ragnarok, when Bruce Banner temporarily borrows a T-shirt belonging to Tony Stark that has the cover of Duran Duran's Rio printed on it.
    • Captain Marvel shows in a flashback Carol Danvers wearing a Guns N' Roses T-shirt, making it clear she was always a maverick (and not always an Emotionless Girl). Nick Fury singing The Marvelettes also indicates slightly old-fashioned manners.
    • In Spider-Man: Far From Home, Peter Parker builds a suit to AC/DC's "Back in Black" (picked by Happy) signifying how he's taking on Tony Stark's mantle. Of course, Peter incorrectly identifies it as belonging to Led Zeppelin.
  • 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.
  • Bumblebee explores how Bumblebee came to love earth music and make use of this trope so much. The human protagonist, Charlie Watson, is introduced waking up and playing The Smiths' "Bigmouth Strikes Again" and rocking out to it, which immediately establishes her as both an angsty rocker chick. Bumblebee learns earth music from her, and while he uses a variety of songs to communicate, he seems to favour upbeat songs personally.
  • In Christine, the eponymous car talks through her radio by playing 1950s music. For example, if someone she doesn't trust tries to forcefully get into her, her radio blasts "Keep A-Knockin'" by Little Richard.
  • 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 (black) street vendor approaching his car.
  • 10 Things I Hate About You. Kat Stratford is introduced blasting Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" in her car.
  • Played straight in an early draft of The Wizard of Oz. MGM planned to highlight Dorothy's Fish out of Water status by contrasting her jazzy vocals with an Oz princess who sings operatically. The whole gimmick, including the Oz princess, was scrapped long before filming.
    • Even so, there's still a vestige of it at the beginning of the movie. Notice how "Over the Rainbow," sung by Dorothy in Kansas, is a great example of a straightforward 1930s jazz standard... and then we get to Oz and the whole Munchkinland sequence is a big, intricate, free-flowing Massive Multiplayer Ensemble Number in old-fashioned Gilbert and Sullivan style.
  • 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 cultured and upper class as they drive to their lakeside vacation home. The villain duo listens to Death Metal.
  • Played with in Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) when Mr. Smith, a badass up to this point, sings along with Air Supply in the car, much to Mrs. Smith's chagrin.
  • In X2: X-Men United, when Wolverine turns on the radio of Cyclops' car, *NSYNC starts playing, and he's less than pleased.
  • Deadpool's quirky and less-than-serious nature is indicated by his soundtrack, at times brought on-screen by request: he listens to Salt-N-Pepa waiting to ambush a convoy, asks for Dolly Parton during a fight montage...but still knows to request something more badass, such as DMX for a Power Walk and AC/DC for a parachuting deployment.
  • Jackie Brown: Played for Drama - When Ordell Robbie gets into Max Cherry's car, he's greeted by the sound of the Delfonics on the stereo - Jackie's favorite band. Fortunately for Max, he doesn't put two and two together.

    Literature 
  • 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.
    Response from NASA: The bandwidth is too low, sorry. Enjoy your boogie fever.
  • Alex in A Clockwork Orange and his love of classical music, especially Beethoven...there are even hints this mystifies people who would expect someone intelligent enough to appreciate such music would be less anti-social. Also, some other teens in a record shop mock him for buying classical music instead of a new pop album, illustrating his tastes in music are uncommon among his peers.
  • Armada: Zack Lightman's go-to music to listen to while playing the titular game is "Raid the Arcade", a playlist his late father used to listen to while gaming. If anything sums up Zack's obsession with the father he never had a chance to know, it's that. His father, not as dead as Zack believed, later blasts Run DMC over loudspeakers to piss off and distract the straight-laced Admiral Vance, nicely summing up Xavier Lightman's disrespect for authority.
  • In Percy Jackson and the Olympians — specifically, The Titan's Curse — Thalia criticizes Grover's choice of music for the dance at the beginning. She prefers Green Day, a band that Grover has never even heard of. It contrasts their personalities pretty well.
  • This is a staple of Seanan McGuire's work. Music is featured often in-universe, and Seanan also often includes as an afterword a list of music that she associates with the book and its characters.
  • Trueman Bradley listens to Symphony #41 in C Major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart while he works because the consistent pattern of musical notes helps him concentrate.
  • In The Speed of Dark, Lou loves classical music. He plays it while he works and listens to different composers to bring out different kinds of patterns in the data.
  • In Wicked Good, troubled teen Rory Falcon listens to head-banger music that his mom thinks sounds like a truck grinding its gears in reverse.
  • In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman tends to listen to what was regarded as generic and cheesy 1980's pop music while dismissing anything more experimental (some of the artists he likes have since become popular or well-regarded again, though). This is used to show what a shallow and banal person he is; he just goes along with whatever he thinks is popular in order to fit in, rather than developing his own unique tastes. In the film adaptation, he plays Phil Collins' "Sussudio" ("one of my personal favorites") of all things while having sex with two prostitutes.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.
  • Supernatural:
    • This show is a bit of a running example. Given that Sam and Dean drive state to state and coast to coast with nothing but a stack of classic rock tapes (Tapes!) to listen to, it provides both a soundtrack for the show and an insight into the characters.
    • In an episode where Dean is dead, we get insight into Sam's choice of music when Dean isn't around to exercise his veto power. In "Lazarus Rising", Dean discovers that the tapes have been replaced by an iPod and the classic rock by Jason Manns. When Dean comes back, he's not pleased.
      Dean: I told you to take care of her, not douche her up.
  • 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; Picard hating it and ordering Jono to turn it off shows that Picard is not good with children.
    • Picard's own musical tastes mainly run to classical, in keeping with his characterization and background as a bourgeois, well-educated man.
  • 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.
  • The Office (US) has Dwight's classic rock fixation, especially the way he hypes himself up before a challenging situation. "Kickstart My Heart" seems to be a favourite.
  • In the Miami Vice pilot, Tubbs looks through Crockett's music collection and finds George Jones, Jimmy Buffett, Dickey Betts, and Waylon Jennings.
    Tubbs: Where does Crockett get his music? Sears and Roebuck catalog?
  • My Name Is Earl: Most of the music that Earl enjoys (and most of the music on its soundtrack) is classic rock from the '70s and '80s. It fits in with Camden being something of a Retro Universe, and Earl himself being more than a little bit behind the times.
  • Silicon Valley: Whenever Russ Hanneman drives up in a brightly colored supercar, he's always blasting a Nu Metal track from the late 90s, establishing him as a Manchild with more money than taste.
  • Mad Men: Don Draper does not like The Beatles. He takes his daughter Sally to their concert at Shea Stadium to score points with her but wears earplugs. Later in the series, as well as later in the '60s, his second wife Megan recommends he listen to their groundbreaking album Revolver, specifically the track "Tomorrow Never Knows", and he turns it off before it ends, signifying his unchanging nature despite the turbulent decade.

    Video Games 
  • 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.
  • Grand Theft Auto games sometimes use this by having cars preset to a particular music station (i.e., the Mafia have the station that plays a lot of Italian operas).
  • Metal Gear Solid V's Quiet is unable to speak, but hums an eerie little tune, and spends her downtime listening to various pieces of 1980s pop music which often seem very appropriate to her personality, like "Maneater", "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and "Too Shy". Paz is also themed around music, constantly humming her song from the previous game.
  • Disco Elysium:
    • The protagonist's love of disco seems at first to be there to signal that he's pathetic and behind the times, and his narcissistic self-loathing is displayed by how he's so into "sadstyle" (sad, slow postrock music) that he knows the number for the sadstyle radio station, Sad FM, by heart and sings it at karaoke. But his taste in music is more eclectic than it first appears, with him getting so into the new emerging genre of rave music that the kids are into that he ends up codifying their genre and inventing in the in-universe version of rave dancing — emphasising his youthful spirit and interest in the future. Also, if you pass the karaoke check, his performance of the song is considered moving, even by Garte, who hates him.
    • Kim seems like a straight-laced binoclard, but he listens to aggressive punk rock music on "Speedfreak FM", hinting at his repressed rebellious and thrillseeking streak - made funnier by how he denies it whenever asked as part of his projection of extreme professionalism. Your Relationship Values with him will go down if you tell other people about his taste. The Final Cut adds a sidequest in which you can call in to the show and get the DJ to give Kim a shoutout on the air, and they will even send Kim some "Speedfreak donks" (which Kim clearly wants, but which his self image will not allow him to accept).
    • Klaasje is also into disco, and views herself as being a disco burnout, despite only being 28. (Disco, in universe, reached its peak about twenty years ago.) In combination with her having won a beauty pageant when she was 14, it adds up to the image of a woman who was forced to grow up very young and already sees herself as old.
    • A significant part of Roy's characterisation is that he hates music, and instead only listens to found sounds, field recordings and musique concrete. It shows off how personally odd he is, but also the sincere delight he finds in the esoteric and mundane.
    • An interesting meta version takes place with the Deserter, who righteously denounces 'reactionary rock & roll music' while himself Waxing Lyrical using lyrics from Manic Street Preachers's "If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next", helping characterise as analogous to a moaning old rocker disgusted by the modern world.

    Web Original 
  • 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.
  • Evelyn from Less Is Morgue is a huge fan of Nickelback, as well as a number of other "corny" late-nineties/early-2000s bands. Initially, it just seems like a goofy joke, but as time goes on, it becomes a symbol of Evelyn's willingness to love what she loves, regardless of what other people think.

    Web Video 
  • 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.)

    Western Animation 

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