Understanding The Top Notes, Heart Notes & Base Notes of Fragrance

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Scents and fragrances may be invisible, but they nevertheless permeate every aspect of our busy lives. In her book, the Scent of Desire, Rachel Hertz delves into the wide-ranging but almost universally underrated impact scent has on our moods, health, well-being and memory. She states: “An odor has no personal significance until it becomes connected to something that has meaning. With your initial encounter, you begin forming nerve connections that intertwine the smell with emotions…”

Harnessing the power of scent

Perfumes, personal care products, candles, reed diffusers and the burgeoning strategy of scent marketing all bear silent and very fragrant testimony to the commercial impact of scent. Perfumes are meant to enhance our daily lives and adventurous spirits, while scented personal care products address a market oriented towards health, wellness and anti-aging. Candles, once a necessity, today serve as elements of home decor and mood and ambiance enhancers. Reed diffusers provide a fragrant, longer-lasting alternative to scented candles and scent marketing enables retailers and others to entice their customers to stay and shop longer and ultimately, purchase more.

The basic elements of every fragrance should be thought of as musical notes that together comprise a symphony, not of instruments but of exquisite scents that blend and linger in the air. As in the notes of a song, these aromatic notes are vital to the composition of the fragrance and each has its own purpose in regard to the totality of the scent experience. Their delicate balance harmonizes the entire fragrance. There are three classes: top or head; heart or middle and base notes. Without all three elements, a scent will never be aromatically appealing, but in unison, the trinity of notes inextricably binds into a beautiful, unforgettable scent.

What is a perfume accord?

Simply explained, a perfume accord is the basic character of a fragrance. It is a balanced blend of three or four notes which together create a completely new, unified odor impression. It is often compared to a chord in music in which two or three notes, when played in harmony, create an altogether different sound. While this doesn’t even sound easy to accomplish, it is more time-consuming than difficult, and is a process that requires much patience and usually many repeated modifications.

When successful, many accords are used in mixtures over and over again both because of their flexibility and their one-of-a-kind characteristics. By changing just one or two elements in the various notes, the accord transforms into an entirely different scent. Common accords include: Amber, Ambreine, Aquatic, Aromatic, Balsam, Chypre, Citrus, Cologne, Floral, Fresh, Fougere, Fruit, Gourmand, Green, Herbal, Mellis, Oriental, Spice and Wood.

The Notes of Fragrance

While each note serves a deliberate and very different purpose in the chemistry of any scent, there is no limit to how many ingredients any particular note should have. In the case of perfume, its personality develops from the collective reaction of the three types of notes once they come in contact with the skin. The moment a wrist receives a spritz of any scent, it reacts with the surrounding skin and the first aroma to reach the nose will be that of the top note. This may be fleeting, but it is also the first ingredient listed on the perfume box and is often the scent’s main selling point. Within a span of some 30 seconds, the middle and base notes will appear and they are always very different.

The Top Notes

The top notes of all fragrances are responsible for its very first impression. They are fresh and light and represent the story of the fragrance. They set the stage, so to speak and are meant to entice and intrigue. Their function is to attract, but also to smoothly transition into the middle notes to come. They are generally the lightest and most volatile of all notes as they evaporate between five and thirty minutes of application. With perfumes, they are immediately perceived as soon as the fragrance is applied to the skin. Some typical top notes include: sage, lavender, light fruits, ginger and citrus such as lemon, sage, orange zest and bergamot.

Top notes might last a couple of hours, but they are meant to evaporate. For this reason, they are usually comprised of lighter oils. Some of these include: citrus, herbal and lighter florals such as anise, grapefruit, lavender, chamomile and rose. According to David Frossard, creative director of Frapin and co-founder of Les Liquides Imaginaires, top notes are the first step in creating the unique story of the fragrance. He states: “They are like something that you can’t really see. But they are there, and they are what makes the perfume alive.” The perfumer completes the fragrant tale, which if done correctly results in a unique scent experience.

Heart or Middle Notes

The foundation of any fragrance lies in its middle notes which make up anywhere from 40 to 80% of the total scent. They sneak in once the initial rush of the top notes make their exit. Due to the fact that they are crafted to last longer (two to four hours), heart notes are generally made from more potent floral and spicy oils such as lemongrass, geranium, rose, ylang ylang, neroli, jasmine, lavender, coriander and nutmeg. The middle notes actually comprise the heart of the fragrance and their job is to beguile and bewitch the user into an intoxicating swirl of scent and memory. They greatly influence the base notes waiting in the wings by acting as a buffer of sorts.

Generally pleasant, mellow and balancing, middle note compounds are much more complex than the top notes. They are often comprised of a smooth combination of floral or fruit tones that are sometimes steeped with strong spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg or cardamon. They only become noticeable after the top notes are gone and they take anywhere from 10-30 minutes to unfold on the skin. Some examples include: lavender, rose, black pepper, pine, geranium, rosemary and juniper.

The Base Note

Both the heart and the base notes work together to deepen the scent introduced in the top note about 30 minutes after application. They mingle their molecules together to create the full body of the fragrance, comprising in the end about 10-25% of the total aroma. The base notes are usually associated with the dry-down period and their ultimate function is to provide to the user a lasting impression of the fragrance. They are the final notes and only appear after the others have completely evaporated. They are often very rich and smooth and are the longest lasting of the three classes of notes. Some more commonly used base notes include: cedarwood, sandalwood, vanilla, amber, patchouli, oak moss and musk.

Identifying The Notes of Five Favorite Scents

To help better explain how to identify the various notes of a fragrance, here are a few of our perfumers favorite scents, specific to the ever-growing use of aromas for ambient scent marketing in hotels and other interior spaces, each of which are broken down by the notes that make them unique and memorable.

Barrel Aged Elixir

This sensual and invigorating scent is inviting and warm and in just a blink of the mind’s eye transports you back to the colorful days of Prohibition, flappers and bootleg whiskey. It has a citrusy top note that is strong, volatile and suggestive of grapefruit and mandarin orange. Mood-lifting and refreshing, this classic distilled whiskey scent whispers of just the slightest buttery aroma, which leads to a middle note of fermented grains and star anise, with its trademark licorice-like and fennel aroma combined with a touch of malt. A smoky, spicy, toasty white oak base note completes the scent.

Genoa Lemon

An energizing fragrance with a head note of stimulating lemon and zesty mandarin orange, this scent evokes the idea of ’fresh and clean’ like few others. Bright and sparkling, this enigmatic fragrance soon morphs into a more exotic blend on the wings of the sweet and cloying middle notes of magnolia blossom, which as a perfume, would be destined to enhance the mystique of any wanna be southern belle. Touches of neroli as well add an orange, sweet honeyed and warm aspect to the scent, which finishes with a twiggy green base note that is fresh, floral, feminine and a bit quirky.

Rain Shadow

The rain washes away the past and transforms the present into a fresh, clean slate filled with the unspoken hope of a new start. This sensual, soothing fragrance begins with a top note that is dark, earthy, wet and mossy. It evokes the sudden patter of rain rushing through the trees in a deep and fragrant wood and is followed by a deepening spicy, peppery, clove-infused rosy carnation middle note. It is a scent that is passionate, inviting and warm, finishing with a woodsy base note of patchouli, oak moss and cedar.

Miami Vibe

Sea, sand, surf, swaying palm fronds and endless sun all come to mind with the words, Miami Beach. The warm moist salty sea air that marks the top note of this sensual, invigorating fragrance is both passionate and sensual. Floral heart notes of beach jasmine, dune flowers and thick, sweet fruity honeysuckle balance this sophisticated scent that finishes with a strong, musky and woody sun-dried driftwood base note.

Alma Flower and Honey

With citrusy top notes of orange, mandarin, fruity, minty, cassis and delicate, peachy green nectarine, this crisp and refreshing fragrance is both sensual and refreshing. Middle notes of highly fragrant, sweet jasmine flower, honeyed and somewhat metallic neroli, enticing rose and crisp, clean, uplifting lavender finish in a base note marked with woody, honey sweet nectar and musk tones.

And so, dear reader, take note of each fragrant note; they are the stuff that scents are made of and they lead to all good and fragrant things.

Final thoughts on perfume:

The appeal of perfume is that it is at once ephemeral and empowering…~ Mary Gaitskill

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