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Michael Scott, the hapless regional manager in The Office, is one of the great characters in television. That mix of blustering confidence in his mouth and self-doubt in his eyes is a picture of striving lameness — a mediocrity who has somehow convinced circus management he’s a high-wire walker, then suddenly finds himself 50 feet above a pit of flaming tigers, naked, deciding whether to spend the surplus on a new copier or chairs.
Steve Carell captures this perfectly in the character of Michael Scott. The show’s theme manages to do the same in music, in three ways in 30 seconds.
1. That accordion
First there’s the choice of instrument for the melody.
When an accordion is going full tilt boogie, chords and all, it can be incredible. But a single, reedy, wheezy little solo accordion line is the essence of striving lameness, reaching for Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and managing only a velvet Elvis. It is Michael Scott.
2. That clash
The second is less obvious but even more important. Here’s where the accordion enters in measure 5. Top line is the accordion; middle line is piano; bottom line is bass.
The chord progression is simple: G-Bm-Em-C, almost but not quite the four chords every pop song is made of. Here it is simplified to block chords.
Something weird happens in the second bar. See how the wheezy accordion in the top line hangs on a G from the previous bar?
Now look at the harmony in the second bar — specifically the lowest note in the middle staff. It moves from G in the first measure to F# in the second, even as the accordion hangs on G up above. The harmony is right — it’s a B minor triad. But Accordion Michael Scott is oblivious to the fact that the harmony changed beneath him. Because of course he is.
If they had both hung on and changed at the same time, it might have been a pretty thing called a 6-5 suspension. Instead, for two full beats we get G and F# mashing against each other like Steve and Melissa at the 25th reunion.
I’ll isolate those two lines and draw them out with a good trumpet patch in the audio.
Here’s the audio.
Hear that clash in the second bar? It’s intentionally wrong. It’s hamfisted and lame. It’s Michael Scott. And it happens twice in eight bars.
3. Rock on
So what do you do if you’re Michael Scott and you’ve just done something hamfisted and lame, twice? You double down, cue the drummer, and rock on:
THAT is the most Michael thing of all.
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Dale McGowan has one foot in arts, the other in sciences, and the other in nonreligious life. He double-majored in music and evolutionary anthropology at UC Berkeley, then studied film scoring at UCLA before conducting a college orchestra while earning a Ph.D. in Composition from the University of Minnesota. Dale is managing editor of nonreligious writers at Patheos, the world’s largest website for multi-belief opinion. He teaches music at Oglethorpe University, is at work on a book about how music communicates emotion, and hosts the How Music Does That podcast.