The menopause, defined as the permanent cessation of menstruation resulting from the loss of ovarian follicular activity, marks the end of natural female reproductive life. It is preceded by a period of menstrual cycle irregularity, the menopausal transition, which usually begins in the mid-40s and is conventionally divided into early and late phases. The endocrine changes, which underlie the transition, are predominantly the consequence of a marked decline in ovarian follicle numbers. The most significant changes include a decrease in early cycle inhibin B and in anti-Mullerian hormone (AMH) levels. The decline in inhibin B results in an increase in FSH, which appears to be an important factor in the maintenance of estradiol (E2) concentrations until late in reproductive life. In the post-menopause, FSH levels are markedly raised, E2 levels are low, whereas inhibin B and AMH are undetectable. The menopausal transition is a time of marked hormonal instability. The Melbourne Women's Midlife Health Project has been an extremely productive study in which it has been possible to describe longitudinal changes in hormone levels throughout the menopause transition and to separate the effects of hormone change from the effects of ageing on a number of endpoints. This review provides the background for an accompanying manuscript in which a novel approach to modelling the hormonal changes during the transition is described.