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Faculty of Music

Matt Woolhouse in Hungary with Wolfson College Choir, June 2018. Photo by Lucy Wilson.


Dr Matt Woolhouse (1965-2023)

It is with great sadness that the Faculty of Music has learnt of the recent passing of Dr Matt Woolhouse. MPhil in Musicology 2002, PhD 2007.

We thank Professor Ian Cross for writing his memorial below.

Matthew Harold Woolhouse (born 30th May, 1965) passed away on the 19th of May, surrounded by his family, following a battle with prostate cancer, in St Gemma’s Hospice in Leeds. Matt and his wife Sarita were living in Leeds, a street away from where Matt had grown up.

Matt was the son of botanist Harold, and Australian botanist and artist Leonie Woolhouse, a loving husband to Sarita, doting father to Emily and Rosalyn, and caring brother. Matt graduated from Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1989 and briefly flirted with a composition masters in Cambridge before heading to Belgium to sing with De Vlaams Opera in Antwerp. On his return to England in 1995 he continued to sing with many leading professional ensembles (including Richard Hickox Singers, London Voices, etc.) and taught music at Westminster Kingsway FE College as well as becoming Director of Music at St Stephen’s Walbrook in the City in 1999. In 2002, he returned to academia to undertake an MPhil in musicology at the Centre for Music and Science (CMS) in the Faculty of Music at Cambridge, staying on to complete a PhD in 2007. He then took up a research fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge. He joined McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario in 2011, where he was Associate Professor of Music at the time of his passing. He was a beloved teacher, ran two labs, and conducted the McMaster Symphony Orchestra.

Matt was a musician and scientist, engaging in both domains at the highest level. His research expanded from an initial focus on mathematical approaches to understanding aspects of the cognition of musical pitch. His work also embraced issues in implicit musical learning, in the social, cognitive, and therapeutic, consequences of active engagement with music and dance, and in psychologically-informed approaches to Music Information Retrieval. He developed links with Nokia which provided access to a massive and unique resource that enabled him to bring together cognitive and computational treatments of music in the exploration of large-scale demographics. He worked with Hamilton City Ballet to build on earlier experiments on the effects of engaging in dance to create a computer system for use in the treatment of movement disorders, with particular reference to Parkinsons. His recent papers have explored how we experience relationships between non-adjacent musical phrases, how timbre interacts with pitch structure in our perceptions, how live and recorded music may lead to different types of embodied experiences, how we make visual sense of non-Western dance forms — and so on. Matt’s interests were diverse and eclectic —if something intrigued him he wanted to understand it and would expend huge amounts of energy in the pursuit of that understanding— but his approach was always rigorous and empathetic.

Music was a part of him. While in the CMS and at Wolfson, Matt wrote many pieces for the college choir (including a piece just a few weeks before his passing) and sang and performed, always happy to stand in to conduct or direct when the need arose. Matt’s musical persona, evident in the pieces that he wrote for the choir, was always confident and open but never overbearing. At times music simply poured out of him, as when sitting at the piano improvising in the style of JS Bach while having a casual conversation; when asked how he was doing it, he simply replied (as he continued to play) “No idea. Not a clue — I just don’t think about it and it happens.”.

Matt also had many hobbies and passions. He loved gardening and DIY, and was always building or fixing something, whether raised beds, a greenhouse, or a trellis for grape vines. He was fascinated by vintage cars, doodled caricatures, and turned scrap wood into beautiful sculptures.

Though half-Australian, Matt was a Yorkshireman, and one of the most English people one could meet — a large and gentle soul, but fiercely committed to what he believed in and to those he loved. He was the best that England has to offer in his selfless kindness and care for those with whom he worked and whom he taught. Like all musicians, Matt was willing to make sacrifices to get it right or at least to try to do it in style, perhaps best seen on one occasion when he appeared with a large splint on a finger, rendering him completely incapable of playing piano or typing. It transpired that he had been playing cricket and had broken his finger in attempting to pluck the ball out of the air from very close range. When remonstrated with, he acknowledged that he had been somewhat unwise, but excused himself by saying (a little wistfully) “But it would have been a great catch…”.