Singing in the Key of Life: Langley music therapist strives to bring music to everyone

Barbara Dunn’s bright voice fills the Half Moon Yoga Studio with a hopeful sound.

Music therapist and professional musician Barbara Dunn leads a singing circle at Half Moon Yoga Studio in Langley.

LANGLEY — Barbara Dunn’s bright voice fills the Half Moon Yoga Studio with a hopeful sound.

Dunn is a music therapist by trade and the positivity of her work affects this present moment of just singing for the joy of it.

She is leading a session of “Singing in the Key of Life,” an every-second-Thursday gathering in Langley that she began in which participants circle up and sing. But it’s not just singing — it’s singing in rounds, singing in harmony, singing in a circle with percussive sounds, singing with one’s neighbor and generally having fun with the voices of the group.

The idea for the group came out of another circle, “Daughters of Harriet,” a group of music therapists who gather to sing and chant. The Daughters of Harriet coined the term “Chant Circle” after attending various drum circles and realizing that their singing group was providing a similar experience, only instead of percussion and rhythm, the focus is on the voice, melody, harmony and lyrics.

Music therapists are using these simple songs to bring communities together as part of their clinical and community-based practices, Dunn said.

“We use our voices to heal the planet,” Dunn added, referring to the practice of singing in groups as a kind of medicine for the soul.

“We lead these large chant circles at music therapy conferences, where we met originally. We decided there needed to be more singing at these conferences, which seemed to be more about achieving goals than about the music,” she added.

The chant circles caught on and now Dunn and her Western region colleagues lead the sessions all around the music therapy conference circuit.

The Daughters of Harriet have even recorded a CD of their chants and songs titled, “You Are A Song.”

“Singing in the Key of Life was a way of bringing that same idea to the local community,” Dunn said.

And, although there are only two more sessions planned for this year, Dunn said she hopes to have enough interest in the singing circle to bring it back in the fall.

On this particular Thursday evening, about eight enthusiastic singers were gathered in the studio. Dunn and her music therapy intern at Whidbey General Hospital, Channing Shippen, led them through a series of songs that ranged from old folk and gospel songs to ballads and original pieces. The songs lent themselves to rounds and harmonies. The idea, it seemed, was to let the body be filled with the voice and to let the voice travel up and out of the body and finally fill the room.

Dunn sometimes closed her eyes and used large gestures, which illustrated the connection between voice, body and, indeed, the spirit of the song. Music is her language, the way she sends her message to the world and to those who no longer have a voice.

In addition to being a board certified music therapist, Dunn is a licensed clinical social worker with a private psychotherapy practice in Seattle. Her doctoral work focused on music and conflict transformation with an emphasis on bringing music into the process of mediation. She is also a professional musician and recently received a grant from the American Music Therapy Association to record a companion CD of the songs that are highlighted in a new book she has written, “More Than a Song, Exploring the Healing Art of Music Therapy.”

“It is basically a collection of stories from my work that highlight music therapy in a wide variety of settings,” Dunn said of the book.

She said it is for the lay person who asks, “So what is music therapy?”

“I have been working as a music therapist for 30 years so I have a lot of stories,” she said.

The intention of the book is to provide a glimpse into the beautiful world where music creates change and promotes healing, she added.

“It’s having music as a way to create change; that’s the crux of it,” Dunn said.

Dunn breaks the book down into the areas in which she’s worked with patients dealing with AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, anxiety, autism, cancer, childbirth, developmental disabilities, hospice care, lung disease, mental illness, physical challenges and youths-at-risk.

She uses real life stories of how music affects the lives of her patients and follows each section with a related song, most of them original having been inspired by her work with patients.

In the section about Alzheimer’s disease, Dunn talks about a man named Joe.

“Pardon me, boys, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo…” As I sang this popular song … Joe opened his eyes. He was alert and smiling. Before I came into the room, he was sitting in his chair sound asleep. He slept much of the day lately. Joe was experiencing the end stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He was slipping from us day by day, yet music was still the one thing that could bring him back to the present.

“When I sang to him, his eyes opened and he listened. He played his mandolin with me. He also played the piano and drums. On occasion, I could get him to dance with me. Joe played music most of his life; it brought him joy and a way to express himself. It was no different now. While we played music together, I could sometimes look into his eyes and see the person who was there before the disease began to take him away. The spark had returned, if only for a moment.

“Out of the clinic and into the streets,” Dunn said about what she would like to see, “music as a part of mediation.”

But even beyond her mediation practices and music therapy for the sick, Dunn said music is a balm that could be useful to everyone.

“I think we all need more music in our lives; more singing. We’re all running around so busy. Three minutes of music can be enough to regroup and relieve that tension.”

The book, she said, reflects what she has done so far; now she looks to the future and how she can affect the next generation with music.

“Music heals,” she said.

To find out more about music therapy go to and visit Dunn’s website at

Dunn will hold a book release celebration and concert at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 23 at Whidbey Children’s Theater in Langley.

Two more sessions for Singing in the Key of Life are scheduled from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, April 12 and Thursday, May 10 at Half Moon Yoga Studio in Langley with a $5 donation. These will be the last ones of the season and will be co-facilitated by Shippen.

She may resume the regular second Thursday session in Langley in the fall based on interest. Dunn will lead another session of Singing in the Key of Life at Seattle Folklife Festival at noon Sunday, May 27 at Experience Music Project. Dunn also co-leads “Kirtan” a local chant circle, which practices Eastern singing, sanskrit, harmony and improvisatory singing or chanting at a regular meeting at 7:30 p.m. on the last Friday of each month at Half Moon Yoga in Langley.

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