Music and fragrance have a lot in common. In the world of music, there are grace notes, quarter notes, high notes and low notes. In the world of fragrance, there are top notes, middle notes and base notes. In both worlds, we speak of notes being in harmony, in accord. And in both, without a skillful balancing of notes, there is no harmony or accord.
As “skillful balancing” suggests, harmony is no accident. With fragrances, there are systems and standards, as well as hundreds of years of experience to draw on. Fragrance notes are classified based on when they’re perceived by the nose, how long they last, and what part they play in the overall scent. Perception begins the moment the fragrance touches the skin.
Top notes, also known as head notes, are the shooting stars of fragrance. They’re the accent notes, the most immediately perceived and the most volatile, meaning they evaporate most quickly because of their light molecular structure. Though they’re responsible for the first impression, top notes are least essential to the overall fragrance because they fade relatively quickly. Examples of top notes, as a category, include:
- Citrus, like lemon, orange or bergamot
- Light fruits, like grapefruit or berries
- Herbs, like basil or lavender
The Heart of the Fragrance
Middle notes, also known as heart notes, are second in order of when they’re perceived, appearing just as top notes are disappearing. Their nickname is deserved — the generally sweet and floral middle notes form the heart of the fragrance. They’re more substantial than the lighter top notes. They last and linger. Examples of middle notes include:
- Florals, like geranium, rose or ylang ylang
- Spices, like nutmeg or clove
- Black pepper
Base notes live up to their name. They are the foundation, the woodsy earthy scents that give the heart notes something to rest on, and the top notes something to leave behind. They are least volatile, evaporating more slowly than middle or top. And, as the longest lasting, they are the last notes remembered, the finishing touches to the fragrance. Common base notes include:
- Woods, like cedarwood, sandalwood or fir
Base notes aren’t alone, though. Even as the last notes to resonate, they don’t do so unchanged. The key to fragrance science is combining scents that thrive and belong together, that mix well and, despite keeping their own identity, carry pieces of other notes with them. Finding pleasant combinations of scents is an opportunity for fragrance creators to exhibit creativity, giving their final products unique and complex characteristics. There are no set rules, but it is important to understand which notes and specific scents tend to work together, as well as how the combinations smell on the skin.
Though not much scientific research has been done to prove it, we can attest to the fact that different skin types react differently to same fragrances, creating a diverse array of scents from a single combination. It’s almost like an individual’s interpretation to a musical composition.
Even in the best fragrances (and with the best soap) there are times when certain scents, or notes, don’t completely mix. When the fragrance magic works, though, notes take the edge off each other, change each other so that all eventually do mix. Fragrance is subtle, complicated, with a certain flair required to make it all work. But when it does, it’s beautiful — just like music.
Article originally published: November 14, 2014. Updated: May 2, 2019.