Inside a room of the Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church in Montrose, the last of 100 people to arrive were looking for open seats on a recent Tuesday afternoon before Ted Stern began his lecture.
Stern, a professor of music at Glendale Community College, has held an off-campus class here for the past several years.
This semester, with the title of “Film Composers and Other Related Stuff,” Stern began the session on how music can affect human emotion, particularly film compositions.
“Long before the 20th century, people understood how music was going to affect human emotions,” Stern said, pointing to Plato and his understanding of music in “The Republic.” “What Plato was saying was, ‘Harness this and we could put it to good use.’”
That’s why Plato thought it useful for the military to march to a major tonality — more positive and uplifting — rather than a minor, which can leave listeners “slightly more introspective or melancholy feeling,” Stern said.
The timing can also impact one’s psychological response, he added.
“Add more notes an octave or an octave and fifth apart and you get a growing, powerful sound. That’s one of the guiding principles to the sub field of music called orchestration,” Stern said.
He compared the scenes of the 1933 film “King Kong” against the 2006 remake. The first film features music composed by Max Steiner, also known for “Casablanca” and “Gone with the Wind.” The second was scored by James Newton Howard, who orchestrated music for “Pretty Woman” and the television series “ER.”
Playing select scenes set decades apart with the same dialogue but different music, Stern directed the class to the low brass instruments used in the first film that communicated “the idea of a monster or gorilla someplace is something you’re supposed to react to in terror,” he said. “The bad King Kong was dead.”
That relationship has changed, Stern said, noting the 2006 film’s lyrical end, solely because human knowledge of primates has advanced since the 1930s, disintegrating the belief that a gorilla is a monster.
After showing scenes from the remake, Stern asked: “What has James Newton Howard brought to the new movie that the old one didn’t have? It’s basically our relationship to the two principal characters in this score. One is Kong. The other is Jane. More importantly, their relationship to one another.”