Fragrance Notes: Everything You Need to Know

By Leanna Serras September 10, 2019
image of Fragrance Notes: Everything You Need to Know

Perfume can play an important role in our wardrobe. Whether you prefer to apply your signature scent for a date night or for a work day in the office, fragrances help give us a certain aura and presence.

Part of what creates this presence for each person is the use of fragrance notes. Similar to how musical notes make up a song, fragrance notes are the individual components that, when combined, form a unified, pleasing perfume. 

We created a guide that explains what fragrance notes are and everything you need to know about them to better understand your favorite perfumes.

What are Fragrance Notes?

Fragrance notes are the ingredients that make up a fragrance. After you spray perfume, your nose starts to pick up and recognize certain scents, which we refer to as notes.

This carefully selected blend of ingredients forms the perfume accord, the basic character of a fragrance. Perfume makers carefully select notes to make sure a fragrance both smells pleasant and evokes a certain experience. Notes are classified in a fragrance pyramid.

the fragrance pyramid with top notes, heart notes and base notes

A perfume’s notes can be separated into three basic categories: top notes, heart notes, and base notes. Notes at the top of the pyramid have a higher volatility (they evaporate faster), while notes at the bottom are longer-lasting.

What Are Top Notes?

Top notes, sometimes referred to as headnotes, form the top layer of a fragrance. In other words, top notes are the scents you detect first after spraying a perfume. These play a role in setting first impressions and shaping a fragrance’s story.

Top notes usually evaporate quickly, lingering around for only the first five to fifteen minutes. Their main purpose is to give off an initial scent and then transition smoothly into the next part of the fragrance. As a result, top notes generally consist of lighter and smaller molecules.

Some common top notes include citrus scents – like lemon, orange, and bergamot – as well as light floral notes like lavender and rose. Basil and anise are also commonly used as top notes.

description of top notes

What are Heart Notes?

As the name suggests, heart notes make up the “heart” of the fragrance. Their function is to retain some of the top notes’ aroma while also introducing new scents to deepen the experience. Sometimes referred to as middle notes, the heart notes also serve as a buffer for the base notes, which may not smell as pleasant on their own.

Because they make up around 70 percent of the total scent, heart notes usually last longer than top notes. Heart notes appear as the top notes start to fade and remain evident for the full life of the fragrance.

Heart notes include full-bodied, aromatic floral oils like jasmine, geranium, neroli and ylang-ylang, as well as cinnamon, pepper, pine, lemongrass, black pepper and cardamom.

description of heart notes

Base Notes

Along with middle notes, base notes form the foundation of the fragrance. They help boost the lighter notes while adding more depth and resonance.

Since they form the perfume’s foundation, base notes are very rich, heavy and long-lasting. They kick in after about 30 minutes and work together with the middle notes to create the fragrance’s scent. Since base notes sink into your skin, their scent lingers the longest and can last for six hours or more.

Popular base notes include vanilla, amber, musk, patchouli, moss and woody notes like sandalwood and cedarwood.

description of base notes

How Do You Identify Perfume Notes?

You can identify perfume notes based on the time passed after the application of the perfume. Top notes are those you smell immediately after the perfume first touches your skin. Once this initial burst fades, the heart notes kick in to form the essence of the perfume. Base notes are the scent that lasts the longest and is the one you remember most.

Every note adds a certain quality to the fragrance. Some of the most common fragrance note categories include fresh, floral, spice, fruits, woods, and musk, each which are typically used in specific note categories. For instance, fresh and floral scents are almost always top notes while woody and musky scents typically appear toward the bottom of the note pyramid.

Here we’ve listed the different types of perfume notes along with an explanation of how they’re used.

illustration with the characteristics of the top note family

Fresh Notes

Fresh notes are light and citrusy in nature, making them popular as top notes. Notes like orange and bergamot give a fragrance its freshness and sweetness, while lemon and bergamot have a more bitter sharpness.

Floral Notes

Floral notes add a natural feel to a fragrance. They are often used as top or heart notes and can be mixed with other notes for a more dramatic scent. Jasmine is another popular floral note with its fruity and white floral scent, while ylang ylang adds a more tropical touch.

Fruit Notes

Fruity notes are most commonly used as middle notes, as they blend easily with other notes and can add more depth to a fragrance. For example, blackberry adds a rich, musky scent, while notes like apple and strawberry give off a sweet and juicy vibe.

illustration of the heart notes family

Spice Notes

Spice notes are used to add warmth and potency to a fragrance, mixing particularly well with floral notes in the heart of a perfume. Notes like cinnamon and nutmeg add spice and sweetness, while others like rosemary and basil possess an herbal quality.

Wood Notes

Sandalwood and patchouli are two wood notes that are often used in a fragrance’s base to strengthen the scent’s lifetime. While most wood notes have an earthy quality, some like cedarwood and oud provide a nice sweet scent.

Musk Notes

Musky notes are most frequently found in the base notes of fragrances. Their richness helps to fill in the foundation and increase the duration of the scent. The different types of musk, from black musk to cashmere musk, means that these scents can add a unique trait to any fragrance.

illustration with the characteristics of the base note family

How to Pick Fragrance Notes

Fragrance notes play an important role in a perfume’s appeal. The composition of the different notes of a perfume and their interaction with your skin are what make a perfume unique. Without combining different notes, a perfume’s scent would just not be as pleasant.

Since there are so many notes, it can be challenging to pick the ones that you like. One way to start learning your own preferences is to become familiar with the fragrance wheel. After you’ve determined your favorite notes, check out our collection of perfumes and colognes to find your unique scent.

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