During every heartbeat, cardiac valves open and close coordinately to control the unidirectional flow of blood. In this dynamically challenging environment, resident valve cells actively maintain homeostasis, but the signalling between cells and their microenvironment is complex. When homeostasis is disrupted and the valve opening obstructed, haemodynamic profiles can be altered and lead to impaired cardiac function. Currently, late stages of cardiac valve diseases are treated surgically, because no drug therapies exist to reverse or halt disease progression. Consequently, investigators have sought to understand the molecular and cellular mechanisms of valvular diseases using in vitro cell culture systems and biomaterial scaffolds that can mimic the extracellular microenvironment. In this Review, we describe how signals in the extracellular matrix regulate valve cell function. We propose that the cellular context is a critical factor when studying the molecular basis of valvular diseases in vitro, and one should consider how the surrounding matrix might influence cell signalling and functional outcomes in the valve. Investigators need to build a systems-level understanding of the complex signalling network involved in valve regulation, to facilitate drug target identification and promote in situ or ex vivo heart valve regeneration.