Running Up That Hill: How Kate Bush’s ‘Hans Zimmer’ Chords Set Up A Chart Resurgence
Kate Bush’s 1985 song Running Up That Hill just did the unimaginable: 37 years after its release, it topped the charts. It’s performed even better in 2022 than it did when it was originally released as part of Bush’s fifth studio album. And it’s managed this because of its use at a pivotal moment of season 4 of Stranger Things.
Much has been said about why it has suddenly captured the imagination of a new generation of music fans — the brilliant synth line, the fantastically-delivered vocals, the 80s aesthetic that Stranger Things itself proved is so in vogue, the fact that it fits so seamlessly into the story. But people are missing the key reason the audience of 2022 was primed to love it so much — its chord sequence.
The chord sequence that’s used through much of the song, and notably in its chorus, consists of a rising sequence that goes through the flat sixth, the flat seventh, and the tonic minor. In C, that would be Ab, Bb, Cm.
For many people who’ve streamed the song in the past month, Stranger Things and the song’s accompanying scaling of the charts were their introduction to Running Up That Hill. But, while they may not have heard it before, they certainly know its chords. And not just from anywhere — from the world of film.
These chords — flat sixth, flat seventh, tonic minor — are a staple of twenty-first-century cinema. They have a quality about them — perhaps it’s the abundance of major chords in a minor key, perhaps it’s their rising nature, perhaps it’s their hints at the relative major — that manages to be both melancholic and hopeful at the same time. They were certainly used before Hans Zimmer used them in the Gladiator soundtrack in 2000 — for instance, in the pre-chorus of Oasis’ Wonderwall, from 1995 (“and all the roads we have to walk are winding”) — but the Gladiator theme, along with its accompanying chords, cemented the sequence in film history.
Since then, it’s become a go-to chord sequence for emphasising the most poignant moments on screen. Zimmer used it again in 2014 in Interstellar (listen from 3:47 here):
And here it is in Visions of Gideon, the 2017 Sufjan Stevens song that’s played over the devastating final scene of Call Me By Your Name:
So either our film music is harking back to the 80s, or Kate Bush was decades ahead of her time. Either way, Running Up That Hill was an inspired choice for Stranger Things: it manages to be simultaneously current and of its time. Its resurgence is entirely deserved.
To hear just how cinematic Running Up That Hill is, have a listen to the trailer for volume 2 of Stranger Things season 4, where the song gets the full cinematic treatment.
(Note: I’ve transposed all the musical examples to C minor so it’s easy to compare them.)