Some open-plan offices use sound "masking systems" that increase the background noise of a room to reduce distractions such as voices, explained the authors of the study.
"If you're close to someone, you can understand them. But once you move farther away, their speech is obscured by the masking signal," study co-author Jonas Braasch, an acoustician and musicologist at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, said in a society news release.
But is one type of masking noise better than another?
To find out, Braasch's study had 12 participants perform a task that required them to pay close attention. They did this while exposed to typical office sounds: one office had "white noise" masking workplace chatter and other noise; another had the "natural" masking that mimicked the sound of a mountain stream; while a third had no masking.
"The mountain stream sound possessed enough randomness that it did not become a distraction," study co-author and graduate student Alana DeLoach said in the news release. "This is a key attribute of a successful masking signal."
The participants were also in a better mood and more productive when they were exposed to the natural masking signal compared to a typical masking signal, according to the researchers.
Using natural masking signals could offer benefits in locations other than offices.
"You could use it to improve the moods of hospital patients who are stuck in their rooms for days or weeks on end," Braasch said.
The study was to be presented Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Washington, D.C. Findings presented at medical meetings are typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.