Perfume 101: What in the world are fragrance notes?

You’ve heard about top, middle, and base notes, but what do they really mean? Here’s the only guide you need to widen your knowledge in perfumery. 

Fragrance notes are very much like musical notes - individual components that when blended together create beautiful music. When you take a whiff of your favorite perfume, what do you smell?

In most cases, you'll probably say that the scent is complex and hard to describe. The reason behind this is that perfumes are crafted from many different components, or notes, that combine to create a pleasant final product. 

So what are fragrance notes?  

Flowers and herbs on a white background

When we say "fragrance notes", we're actually talking about the many ingredients that make up a single perfume. The three fragrance notes are top notes, middle notes (also called "heart notes), and base notes. When these three notes come together, they form your perfume's "accord". 

An accord is a scent that's made up of various perfume notes that blend together to create a unique fragrance. If fragrance notes are akin to musical notes, then accords may be likened to a musical chord - when you hold down several musical notes together, you create a unique sound. 

The goal of a perfumer is to select the best notes to create a pleasant smell and evoke an experience. 

What’s a fragrance pyramid? 

In a fragrance pyramid, fragrance notes are positioned accordingly. Notes at the top of the pyramid are more volatile, and evaporate faster, while notes at the bottom are longer lasting. 

Top notes are the first scents you smell and last around 5-15 minutes. They later evolve into heart notes, lasting 20-60 mins, and finally into base notes which last around six hours or more. 

Top Notes

Fragrance pyramid top notes

The first scents you smell when exposed to a fragrance? Those are what you call 'top notes' - strong and sharp scents that evaporate quickly and last around 5-15 minutes. Since they’re the first notes to appear, they heavily influence a consumer’s decision to purchase. 

Common top notes include citrus (grapefruit, mandarin, and lemon), green (peppermint, basil, and spearmint), and ozonic (watery and airy scents). 

Middle Notes 

Fragrance pyramid middle notes

Middle notes are the scents you smell once the top notes evaporate. They are considered the heart of a fragrance - often pleasant and well-rounded. Common middle notes include combinations of floral or fruit tones that are sometimes infused with spices like nutmeg, cardamom, and cinnamon.

Middle notes make up around 40 to 80% of a perfume's total scent. Crafted to last longer, middle notes are often made from more potent and spicy oils such as geranium, lemongrass, rose, neroli, lavender, nutmeg, and coriander! 

Base Notes 

Fragrance pyramid base notes

Base notes are the last notes to appear and form the foundation of a fragrance. They add more depth to the scent while helping boost the fragrance's lighter notes. Because they serve as the fragrance's foundation, base notes need to be heavy, rich, and long-lasting. 

Ingredients that make up base notes sink deeper into your skin and lingers for around six hours or more. Common base notes include amber, vanilla, patchouli, moss and woody notes like cedarwood and sandalwood.