Behind the Metaphysical Meaning of “Learning to Fly” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

There is just something about an acoustic guitar and Tom Petty singing over it that makes the listener feel as if they’re floating on sunshine. Whether it’s solo, with his band the Heartbreakers, or with his supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, it’s a combination that works.

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That is most assuredly the case in the song “Learning to Fly” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It’s an acoustic-driven track that makes one think of summer or of gazing out onto some American wheat fields in the golden spring.

[RELATED: 4 Songs You Didn’t Know Tom Petty Wrote for the Traveling Wilburys]

Let’s dive into the history and meaning of the song “Learning to Fly” below.

Life Itself

Speaking of the Traveling Wilburys, two of the band’s members—Petty and singer/songwriter Jeff Lynne—wrote the song together for Petty’s 1991 album, Into the Great Wide Open. Lynn also co-produced the record, along with Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell.

The song, which hit No. 28 on the Billboard Hot 100, is about life, though Petty has said it was inspired by an airplane pilot he saw on television, who said learning to fly wasn’t too hard but landing was harder. “I wanted that song to be a kind of redemptive song, only in the vaguest way, certainly not literally,” Petty told said.

Petty opens the track by singing the words Well, I started out and then he, in a very spare and poetic way, talks about beginning on a “dirty road” while “all alone.” Such is an easy metaphor for life itself or for life as an artist.

Though the phrase “you are not alone” is popular today on social media, it isn’t quite true. Especially for an artist. We are born alone, die alone, and create, in the most granular sense of the word, on our own, too. But if you’re lucky, some magic can happen along the way, either from someone else for you or summoned from your own soul.

And this is where Petty’s song goes.

The Chorus

As we walk on the road towards… something, we find there is more to life than immediately meets the eye. In this way, it can feel like learning to fly when we discover some secrets. Petty knows this as one who has long been on the creative, curious search.

And the sun went down
As I crossed the hill
And the town lit up
The world got still

Just then, as the world gets still, the spark occurs and Petty offers,

I’m learning to fly
But I ain’t got wings
Coming down
Is the hardest thing

In this way, Petty both provides hope and caution. There is more to life. It’s not just walking a dirty road in a still world, there is an opportunity to soar, to fly, to rise above. But as anyone who has achieved their dreams, enjoyed a night of drinking with good friends, or anything else that provides a sense of something “high,” what goes up must come down.

And, as Petty says, coming down is the hardest thing. So, be cautious as well as curious.

The Final Message

For the rest of the song, Petty talks about what may happen in the world around the singer-protagonist. The sea may “burn” and the rocks may “melt”—something that seems more and more possible and troubling given today’s rising global temperatures. But nevertheless, the way to go ahead is trying to achieve one’s best—to fly—even if there is a downside, darkness, horror, and a comedown.

Well, some say life
Will beat you down
Break your heart
Steal your crown

So I started out
For God knows where
I guess I’ll know
When I get there

I’m learning to fly
Around the clouds
But what goes up (learning to fly)
Must come down

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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