Katherine O'Neill 

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Katherine graduated with a music degree from The University of York in 2016. She then continued on to study an MA in music psychology, as well as taking on the role of YMPG assistant.

During her masters, Katherine conducted a literature review which sought to examine existing theories of empathy, and research that has been conducted, in an attempt to clarify the ambiguity surrounding this concept.

In her second term Katherine and research partner, Charlotte Brook replicated the work by Eerola, Vuoskoski and Kautianinen testing the assumption that being moved by unfamiliar sad music is associated with high empathy. This replication was designed using the theory, hypotheses and methods of the aforementioned study to inform the decisions made. However, due to some limitations in resources and other academic reasoning there were some alterations to the design. This paper initially discusses the existing research and theory related to the study, such as trait theory and the theory that sad music elicits oxymoronic feelings of sadness that are pleasurable. Previous explanations as to why this might be and why this research is new in terms of the use of unfamiliar sad music as a stimulus, thus nullifying many of the previous induction mechanisms and explanations.

For her final thesis project Katherine conducted research on the affects of induced empathy on emotional responses to music. The abstract can be seen below:

There are multifarious theories how emotional responses are elicited by music, many of which attribute empathy as being partly responsible (Scherer & Zentner, 2001). However, there are fewer empirical studies seeking to prove these theories. In the presented investigation, the common coding model of prosocial behaviour processing has been used to explain the concept (Schubert, 2017). Here, empathy is defined as the result of three interrelated components: affective empathy (alternately emotional contagion), cognitive empathy (alternately perspective taking), and prosocial behaviour. In an online study, we tested 1) If individual levels of trait empathy will have a significant effect on the degree to which participants experience situational empathy in response to musical stimuli; 2) If written background information about a composer’s expressive intentions and motivations will significantly affect the degree to which participants are reporting to empathize with the composer; 3) If the emotions expressed in the music have a significant effect on the participants’ emotional response to music and if the empathy-induction text intensifies the effect of those emotions expressed. 229 participants were randomly assigned to three groups: The experimental group was given a text describing the emotions of the composer during the composition process. To control for the effect of reading text during music listening, one control group was given a text describing the musical content of the excerpts and the other control group was not given any textual information. In a repeated measures design all participants listened to 30 seconds of four pieces of music, all taken from film scores and selected to express emotion from the four quadrants of the circumplex theory of emotion. Following each excerpt, participants rated their felt valence and arousal, completed a newly devised state empathy measure that assessed affective and cognitive empathy and (at the end of the questionnaire) the Interpersonal-Reactivity-Index (IRI).

The results show, that state empathy in response to music is significantly associated with trait empathy, especially with the Fantasy-Subscale of the IRI. Different to those in the control conditions, participants in the experimental group responded with significantly higher levels of situational empathy. Receiving this text significantly moderated the effect of the expressiveness of stimuli on induced emotion, indicating that it induced empathy and lead to stronger responses to expressions in the music. We conclude that empathy can be induced in relation to music listening through the provision of information on the specific emotions of a person relating to the music; the composer in this case. Furthermore, we showed that this increase in empathy strengthens the emotional response to expressive musical characteristics. These findings contribute to understanding the psychological mechanisms that are involved in emotional responses to music. 


Katherine is now working on her PhD as part of a large, European research project. 

Under the leadership of Zeppelin University (Martin Tröndle, WÜRTH Chair of Cultural Production), the interdisciplinary project’s team is made up of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt am Main (Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann), the University of Bern in Switzerland (Wolfgang Tschacher), the University of York (Hauke Egermann) and the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits in Erlangen.

The researchers will be focusing on the format of the concert, and current developments in the music business - commonly referred to as 'experimental concert formats' - will become scientific experiments. The project is mainly supported by the Volkswagen Foundation, the Max Planck Society, and the WÜRTH Foundation. The Aventis Foundation supports the artistic part of the project.