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Have you ever wanted to know more about the words we use to talk about fragrances? What do we mean when we say fragrances are made up of notes? Why are some ingredients called top notes and others are called base notes? And what’s an accord?
We’ve put together this guide to teach you more about what we mean when we describe our fragrances and to help you learn how to talk about your own impressions of a scent.
What are notes?
If you’ve spent any time reading descriptions of fragrances you’ll most likely have come across the term ‘notes’ – but what are notes when it comes to fragrance?
Notes is really just a fancy and fragrance-specific way of saying ingredients and the term refers to all the different individual scents which make up a more complex fragrance. While notes correspond to a specific scent they are not the same as essential oils (natural compounds extracted from plants), although these are often used to achieve a specific note, however in some cases a synthetic substitute will be used for ethical or safety reasons.
Let’s use our description for the fragrance Enchanted Forest as an example:
Capturing the enchantment of a secluded forest glade. Top notes of lavandin and eucalyptus leaf melt into a heart of vetiver, iris wood and spice enhanced by a bountiful base of tonka bean, amber, and moss.
In this scent the notes are lavandin, eucalyptus leaf, vetiver, iris wood, tonka bean, amber and moss as well as several spice notes. Blended together in a specially designed formula, these scents form the Enchanted Forest fragrance. Much like the series of separate notes in a piece of music make up the overall melody the separate notes in a fragrance work together to create the finished scent.
What are top notes?
You’ll notice in our Enchanted Forest example that certain notes are listed as belonging to the top, heart or base of the fragrance, but what do these terms mean?
Fragrances are designed to be layered so the fragrance evolves as it diffuses, think of it as like eating a dessert like cheesecake – each layer builds on the last to create an enjoyable flavour, or in this case fragrance, combination. Top, heart (also known as middle) and base notes are what make up each layer. They’re often represented as a triangle, with top notes at the point and base notes at the bottom. Each of these layers of notes has different characteristics which help them work together to create a well-rounded scent.
Let’s start with top notes. Top notes, also known as head notes, are the first notes you smell in a fragrance. They are typically light and fresh notes, like citruses or aldehydes and add ‘airiness’ or ‘sparkle’ to a scent. In our Enchanted Forest example the top notes are lavandin, a light floral, and eucalyptus leaf, an herbaceous note. Molecularly they’re the lightest notes in the fragrance which is why they’re the first you smell. Top notes are also the fastest to evaporate, making way for the heart notes to take centre stage.
What are middle or heart notes?
As you might have guessed, middle notes are the notes in the middle layer of a fragrance. Once the lighter top notes have begun to fade, the heart notes become more noticeable. Heart notes are often the most prominent notes in a fragrance and they bridge the scent experience from the initial impression of the top notes to the depth of the base notes.
Middle notes can encompass a wide range of fragrance families, however rich, heady florals and aromatic spices are popular choices. In Enchanted Forest, a woody scent, the heart notes are woods - vetiver and iris wood – blended with spicy notes.
In terms of longevity middle notes fall somewhere between top and base notes, once they begin to fade the base notes emerge.
What are base notes?
Last but certainly not least, base notes are the finishing touch of a fragrance. These notes are the heaviest and longest lasting, lingering long after the top and heart notes have started to evaporate. Forming the foundation of the fragrance, warm, rich scents are a popular choice for base notes, such as vanilla, amber, musk, and woody notes. In Enchanted Forest the bottom layer is formed from notes of creamy tonka bean, resinous amber and earthy moss to add depth and warmth to the fragrance.
What is an accord?
If notes are like music notes, then an accord is like a chord - several notes designed to be released at the same time in a harmonised combination to create a unique scent. Accords are only one element of the fragrance, usually consisting of a few notes, which are then complemented by the fragrance’s other notes.
There you have it - why not try identifying some of the notes in your favourite fragrances next time you use them and see if you can determine if they’re the top, middle or base of the scent?