Student Spotlight: Zander Jones on Writing Catchy Mnemonic Songs for Classrooms

Zander Jones

This interview was conducted with Zander Jones, a songwriter, entrepreneur, and Soundfly community member, highlighting and exploring music he makes to help kids learn about history and geography, and discussing his recent Soundfly mentorship session.

The world is a better place with Zander Jones in it.

Mr. Jones is a songwriter and producer who has created not just an incredible outlet for helping kids build their memorization skills, learn, and get creative with education, but full songs that entertain as much as they teach listeners of all ages. Take a listen to his most recently released song, and the focus of today’s conversation, “Oceania” below.

Jones’ talent for adapting the same mnemonic ear candy that helps people memorize pop music into a package designed for education, coupled with a songwriting style that emphasizes responsibility to his subject matter, makes his work that much more brilliant. I’m overjoyed to have chatted with Jones about this, and even more excited about the fact that came here to Soundfly to improve his production and mixing skills with the help of a Soundfly mentor.

We talk about all that and more below. Enjoy!

Q: You recently released “Oceania”, which is a song designed to help kids (and adults!) learn about new cultures through music. It’s a beautiful song with a positive message in and of itself, and part of a larger project called I Memorized That. Can you tell us a bit more about this project?

A: When kids struggle with memorization in school, I Memorized That (IMT) is their secret weapon for memorizing hard-to-remember content effortlessly. We create musically-practical songs “that make your kid look like a genius.”

What are the goals of this project in terms of the direction of your growth?

The goal is to become the leader in the mnemonic educational space by generating real, positive results in the lives, homes and schools of our audience. De-stressing parents and seeing kids acing a test, slaying a presentation, getting A’s in their classes — these are just some of the tangible goals that motivate IMT to create more helpful content at scale.

“Our aim is to create songs with non-nursery rhyme melodies that can be played over and over in a minivan, but won’t drive Mom or Dad completely insane.”

How would you describe your sound in general?

I would describe the sound as family-friendly pop. Our aim is to create songs with non-nursery rhyme melodies that can be played over and over in a minivan but won’t drive Mom or Dad completely insane. We do our best to vary the vibe, emotional tone and minor/major keys to fit the subject matter, but ultimately we just want our listeners to feel a positive sense of accomplishment.

These songs are a tool after all.

I think most North Americans’ inroads to “Oceania” would be through Disney’s influential Moana soundtrack, which I know you took influence from here; but did you use other references to create the instrumentals here?

Yes, I did take influence from Moana. I applaud Disney to taking the time to thoroughly research the nuances that make Pacific Island culture unique; it came through beautifully in the movie. The band Te Vaka was a key contributor to the music used in the film, and their other songs also served as inspiration. I also drew from the earthy, sultry tones of the artist Fiji, whose timbre really captures a quintessential Pacific islander quality.

Finally, one of my biggest influences was my late grandmother. My siblings and I would sing traditional Samoan hymns every evening with her when we growing up in American Samoa. No one taught her how to sing, so her vocal sound was very raw but sure. I did my best to capture that kind of Polynesian definitiveness in the song.

How was the process of creating “Oceania” different from that of your “Gettysburg Address” song, released almost three years ago (but with many of the same intentions)?

For one thing, I’m not sure I knew what I was doing in Garageband when I recorded “Gettysburg Address.” Ha! I was still trying to figure out my way around MIDI, tracks, etc. After tracking, I threw my hands up and sent the files off to a guy on Fiverr to mix and master… and prayed for the best.

For “Oceania,” I dove in as an advanced beginner Logic Pro X user that grew into an intermediate user under the tutelage of Soundfly mentor Joseph Capalbo. (I’ve still got a long ways to go!) I had a much better handle on how to create depth, where to place things in the sound spectrum, and how to take the many elements going on in the song and create dedicated space for each. It’s not perfect, but it’s personal growth nonetheless.

And what is your songwriting or production process like exactly? What elements do you start with and how do you build your tracks?

Ultimately, I want to transport the listener to the “scene” of the song. For “Gettysburg Address,” I wanted to create a mood that was indicative of a war-torn battlefield, with undertones of struggle but also of hope and optimism. For “Oceania,” I wanted to create a festive, colorful mood that was reflective on the lush, vibrant scenery, cultures and peoples of the Pacific. I wanted to make listeners get up and move a little bit.

Writing to a set-in-stone text like the “Gettysburg Address” looks like this:

  • Scan the sentences and paragraphs in the speech for syllables that will rhyme.
  • At the end of each of those rhymes, chop up the sentences and paragraphs into bite-sized phrases.
  • Line up the bite-size phrases vertically, just like how lyrics to a song are laid out.
  • Break up the phrases into sections: A section, B section, etc.
  • Identify how the energy will flow through each section: Should it rise? Should it stay steady? Should it drop a bit?
  • Work out the rhythm of the phrases in each section to where they feel natural when said out loud.
  • Once rhythm is worked out, lay a melody on top of the words.

“I get pumped at the challenge of taking an obtuse piece of text, whittling it down into accessible pieces, and then ironing it out into an intelligible piece of musical art.”

Writing a list of facts song like “Oceania” has a little more flexibility but very similar approach:

  • Scan the vertical list for syllables that will rhyme.
  • Re-order the list so that you have an ideal sequence of rhymes lined up (for example, every fourth phrase ends in the “ee” sound).
  • Break up the phrases into sections: A section, B section, etc.
  • Work out the rhythm of the phrases in each section to where they feel natural when said out loud.
  • Once rhythm is worked out, lay a melody on top of the words.
  • Between sections, insert a catchy hook, because lists can feel a bit monotonous and can drone on.

Track-building begins with scratch tracks (piano, bass, drums, lead vocal). Once I have the arrangement set with scratch tracks, I go back through and add peripheral instrumentation to nail down the energy ebbs and flows through the song. Finally, I’ll redo the vocals. I learned recently that it’s best for me to record and edit as many of the final vocals in one sitting as possible, so that my tone on that day and time are consistent. Tomorrow, I may not sound exactly the same (given all the pollen allergens here in Nashville!), and that has cost me time trying to manipulate it later.

Joseph taught me how to mix and master all from Logic Pro X, so I’ll set time aside for that on a different day, then upload to Distrokid for distribution.

What are your favorite moments of music production?

Most fun is the producing and arranging phase. Least fun is the mixing and sound-sculpting. I respect all you killer mixing and master folks out there!

Most inspiring and my favorite is the songwriting. I get pumped at the challenge of taking an obtuse piece of text, whittling it down into accessible pieces, and then ironing it out into an intelligible piece of musical art. It makes me feel like I’ve connected humans (the author and listener) and helped someone accomplish a personal goal. I’m blessed to be the musical conduit in the middle.

You worked heavily on “Oceania” while undertaking a Soundfly mentorship session with Joseph Capalbo. How did his support and guidance help you throughout the process?

Joseph was incredibly helpful. I treasure our recorded Zoom calls and shared Google doc where our Q&As live; they now serve as a go-to reference point during my daily production process. I can truly say I did more music production in that four-week span than I had done in all my previous years combined.

The session was intentional, thorough and (above all) accountable. And mentor accountability was my #1 reason for doing it. I needed it if I was going to grow to the next level.

+ Learn more about Soundfly’s goal-oriented custom mentorship program here, and fill out a quick form if you’re interested to learn more or get paired with a mentor!

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When you started the mentorship session, what did you look to get out of it, and how did you feel coming out of it?

I went in intimidated and a bit lost in my DAW. So, I was determined to throw as much material at Joseph for feedback as I could. We worked through four different projects, each from a different genre and compositional makeup. In our four-week session, we tackled one project per week, and I had a long list of questions prepped for our Zoom calls.

I came out of the session feeling like I could finally wrap my brain around the start-to-finish cycle of producing a song. I came out feeling like I knew how to run this machine now. I cam out of the session undaunted!

What’s next for I Memorized That?

My goal this year is to eventually release one song per week.

After “Oceania,” I released “Multiples of 3 and Skip Counting by 3” to streaming services, which is the first of 13 multiplication songs that I’ll be releasing this year. What makes them unique is that I’m not stopping at __ x 12 = ___. I’m going to __ x 15 = ___. Hopefully kids find it helpful!

I’m also releasing more geography songs. Next up is “Australia.” And I’ve got history requests for the “Bill of Rights,” historical timeline songs, other speeches, Bible verses, etc.

The possibilities are endless. Time is short. So, after typing this, I’m getting back to cranking out more music. I’m ready to hear more kids shout, “I memorized that!”

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