Lighter Side: Should your office pipe in the sound of a mountain stream?

by Nicola Middlemiss29 May 2015
A trip to the garden-centre might be in store for HR professionals after scientists say the sound of running water can improve employees’ cognitive abilities and keep people happier.

Researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York say natural sounds – such as flowing water – can boost the moods and brainpower of employees as well as providing some much-needed privacy.

An increasing number of modern open-plan offices employ sound masking systems – most often “white-noise” – to render distant speech unintelligible and make distractions less annoying.

“If you're close to someone, you can understand them,' explains Jonas Braasch, an acoustician and musicologist at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, “but once you move farther away, their speech is obscured by the masking signal.”

But experts are now saying there’s a better option for employers – playing natural sounds.

Braasch, long with fellow researcher Alana DeLoach, exposed 12 human participants to three different sound stimuli while performing a task that requires them to pay close attention: typical office noises with the conventional random electronic signal; an office soundscape with a “natural” masker; and an office soundscape with no masker.
 
The natural sound used in the experiment was designed to mimic the sound of flowing water in a mountain stream and garnered the best results from the participants.

“The mountain stream sound possessed enough randomness that it did not become a distraction,” explained DeLoach. “This is a key attribute of a successful masking signal.”
 
Braasch said using natural sounds as a masking signal could even have benefits beyond the office environment; “You could use it to improve the moods of hospital patients who are stuck in their rooms for days or weeks on end,” he said.
 
DeLoch and Braasch will presented the results of their experiment at the 169th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, held this week in Pittsburgh.
 

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