The son of a tanner, he was born at Brome, Suffolk, near Diss, and received the patronage of the Cornwallis family. It is thought that he accompanied Elizabeth Cornwallis to Hengrave Hall near Bury St. Edmunds about 1594 when she married Sir Thomas Kytson the Younger.
A set of madrigals by him appeared in 1598 and a second in 1608, the two sets containing sixty-four pieces.  In 1600, he was chosen to proofread John Dowland's Second Booke of Songs. In 1628, on the death of Elizabeth Cornwallis, Wilbye went to live with her daughter Mary Darcy, Countess Rivers in Colchester, where he died. He is buried in the graveyard of Holy Trinity Church, in Colchester town centre. (The building is currently the CO1 cafe and Young Christian Centre.)
Wilbye is probably the most famous of all the English madrigalists; his pieces have long been favourites and are often included in modern collections. His madrigals include Weep, weep mine eyes, Weep, O mine eyes and Draw on, sweet night. He also wrote the poem, Love me not for comely grace. His style is characterized by delicate writing for the voice, acute sensitivity to the text and the use of "false relations" between the major and minor modes.
- Philip Ledger (ed) The Oxford Book of English Madrigals OUP, 1978
- Free scores by John Wilbye in the Choral Public Domain Library (ChoralWiki)
- Free scores by John Wilbye at the International Music Score Library Project
- HOASM brief biography of Wilbye