Remember when play counts on iTunes were everything? Next to each song, a number provided unequivocal evidence of how hip your listening habits were. My crush knew that, and on a bus ride home from a cross-country meet, he suggested we compare our top-played songs. From his, I could see that Katy Perry kissed a girl and liked it, there was a lot of love in the club, and that he'd definitely watched the pilot of Gossip Girl. It was difficult for him to conceal his horror/confusion when he looked at mine: I had listened to the soundtrack to the Johnny Depp movie Chocolat—I'm not kidding—over one thousand times.
Throughout high school, I played it every time I pulled an all-nighter studying for a test (6 plays), when I spent a Saturday running through SAT questions (8 plays), and every evening as I did homework (7 plays per week). Over four years, that's a lot of Vivianne Sets Up Shop.
I didn't listen to it for my love of Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp's onscreen chemistry—I've never even seen the movie—but because of the Pavlovian cue it elicited. After plucking it, at random, from my mom's CD stack, it became my background music of choice anytime I had to focus on a task. The gypsy jazz chords (thank you, Wikipedia, for helping me identify that genre) of Minor Swing indicated that it was time to study, and the melancholy flute of Ashes to the Wind let me know the album had nearly run its course.
When I went to college 3,000 miles from home, the habit came with me. Even though I was in an entirely new situation, studying brand-new concepts, I could count on Rachel Portman. Eventually (maybe on the two-thousandth listen?), I began to branch out. The Duchess still reminds me of writing psychology research papers and, apart from the jarring violin interludes, I loved listening to Pride and Prejudice throughout my grad program. When I started working at Food52, I began listening to Spotify's "Coffee Table Jazz" playlist, which saw me through many late nights and deadlines. There was even a brief, but passionate "Afternoon Acoustic" phase that led me to hate all easy listening covers. But anytime I have a looming deadline or difficult project to tackle, I always return to my first love: Chocolat.
I'd barely consciously thought about my Chocolat affinity (outside of the moments my headphone jack falls out and my computer starts blasting Party Preparations - Instrumental for everyone in the office to jam to) until coming across Elizabeth Yuko's recent piece for Lifehacker. In it, she writes about her own Chocolat, George Gershwin's An American in Paris, which she writes contained "the perfect blend of urgency and focus." In the article, she points out that music psychologist Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, suggests "listening to one song over and over as a way to improve your focus and keep your mind from wandering."
The key to finding one for you is listening to the song, playlist, or album only when you need to enter deep, focused work (you know, kind of like how I only listen to Tina Parol's "Who's Got Your Money" after a breakup...). Eventually, pressing play will feel like hitting a light switch for your brain. As soon as the music starts, you'll be ready to work.
Just, maybe, explain that to your crush next time he asks to see your play count.