Understanding Fragrance Notes (A Guide)

When you’re looking up a certain fragrance, most of the time you’ll also see a note breakdown. Top notes, middle notes, heart notes, base notes, whatever. You just want to know if it smells good. Well, the notes in a fragrance are actually what makes up the scent.

What are fragrance notes? Fragrance notes are basically certain ingredients used in a fragrance, by which you can recognise a certain scent. After application of the fragrance, you can start to detect certain scents, which are referred to as notes. These notes are split up in three categories. Top notes, middle notes, and base notes. These are congruent with the time passed after application, where the top notes are the first notes to be detectable, then the middle notes and the fragrance ends off with its base notes.

But how do all these seemingly random ‘ingredients’ make such an amazing scent?

What Are Fragrance Notes

When a fragrance is made, it consists of certain ingredients. Perfumers put in a lot of care to make all these ingredients work together and make the scent amazing. When you smell these ingredients in a fragrance, they are referred to as ‘notes’. These notes can be a whole bunch of things, depending on the fragrance. Fresh fragrances make use of ingredients with a fresh scent to it, like citrus or aquatic scents. When the perfumer wants to make a scent that works well in the winter, he or she might use notes like vanilla or some sort of spice.

All these notes work together in perfect harmony. When you first spray on a fragrance, you’ll be able to smell the perfect blend of the top notes. Only after those top notes have faded away will you be able to notice the middle notes. And the same thing goes for the base notes, which will become noticeable after the middle notes. All these notes work together to create a great, pleasant scent, where the middle and base notes both work together to carry on the scent that was introduced by the top note.

These notes can also make a fragrance be different during each stage. So instead of one linear scent, you’ll go through a roller coaster of different scents, making the fragrance way more interesting and less boring.

The Main Function Of The Top Notes

The top notes, or sometimes referred to as headnotes, are arguably the most important notes of a fragrance, at least for the companies selling them. Why? Well, when people are trying a fragrance for the first time, the thing they’ll smell is the top notes. And the first impression of something is very important. If your first impression is bad, there is a good chance you’ll never buy the fragrance. On the other hand, if you have an amazing first impression, chances are your more likely to actually purchase the fragrance.

The top notes are the scents that start of the story of the fragrance. When you spray the fragrance, the first thing you’ll get hit by are the top notes. Their most important function is to grab peoples attention, to attract them to the fragrance. Mainly, because of the first impressions. I mentioned earlier how they can make the difference between being or not being purchased. But this also goes for the people around you. They also have a first impression of it when you’re wearing it. So because of this, the top notes are very important.

The top notes, however, are not only there to make good first impressions. They also have to start the story of the fragrance. The top notes usually fade away relatively quick. Most of the time, they’re really present for the first five to thirty minutes. After that, their job is to smoothly transition into the next chapter of the fragrance, the middle notes.

Because the top notes are not meant to be around for too long, they’re usually very light and volatile. They are meant to evaporate pretty quickly. There are some notes that are used frequently as a top note, because of their lightness. Some typical top notes are citrus-like fruits, such as lemon, grapefruit, bergamot, or some type of orange. But you can also find other light fruits, like apple or pineapple. Other light top notes include ginger, lavender, sage, or floral notes.

For example, Creed Aventus is a very well known fragrance. This has to do with the amazing smell it has. If we take a look at the top notes of Creed Aventus, we see that it has apple, bergamot, pineapple, and blackcurrant. From these, it is apparent that the opening of Creed Aventus is fruity. The bergamot gives the scent a bit of freshness, where the blackcurrant provides a little bit of sweetness. The apple, but mostly the pineapple are the notes that make up the most detectable scent when you first spray on Creed Aventus.

The Main Function Of The Middle Notes

The middle notes of a fragrance make up the foundation of one. They’re basically the heart of the fragrance, hence why they’re sometimes called heart notes. The main function of the middle notes is to basically make up most of the scent. With most fragrances, around 70% of the total scent is made up of the middle notes. Their job is to make sure the scent introduced in the top notes are carried on and explored even further.

These middle notes are noticeable just when the top notes are starting to fade away. This makes sure that there is always a noticeable scent and you’ll always be able to detect it.

Because the middle notes are meant to stay around for a while, they are usually made from stronger, more potent oils. Some examples of what can often be found in the middle notes are jasmine, lavender, rose, and ylang ylang. Besides these stronger floral notes, there are also middle notes like cinnamon, pepper, pine, or cardamom.

As you might have noticed, some floral notes used in the top notes are also used in the middle notes. The secret of these notes is that, in combination with other, more spicy notes, they are much more potent and last a longer time. The middle notes usually appear after about 20 minutes, right after the top notes fade away, and will disappear after around four hours to make way for the last chapter, the base notes.

Another job that the middle notes carry out is to hide the strong, often not so pleasant opening of the base notes. Often, the notes used as the base notes can come of really strong when they first appear.

If we take a look at Creed Aventus again, we’ll see that the middle notes are birch, juniper berries, patchouli, and jasmine. These notes make it so the fragrance becomes somewhat woody. The birch is also what makes the fragrance very masculine. The jasmine, juniper berries, and patchouli really refine the scent at this stage, making it smell very nice, woody, and masculine.

The Main Function Of The Base Notes

The base notes and the middle notes together make up most of the fragrance, so they are basically the main theme the fragrance has. Their main function is to keep the lighter notes alive and have them carry on a bit longer, along with adding just a little bit more smoothness to the ending.

Usually, these base notes are rich and deep and don’t evaporate that quickly. The base notes are also not noticeable until after about 30 minutes when the base and middle notes start working together.

Some of the most common base notes are vanilla, amber, musk, patchouli, moss, and woody notes like cedarwood or sandalwood. Some of these notes are so strong, that you can still detect them after a solid day. They’ll be there when the rest of the fragrance is long gone.

Going back to Creed Aventus again, the base notes in there are vanilla, musk, moss, and amber. The vanilla and amber create a sweet finish, and the moss and musk make sure the fragrance won’t die out too quickly, along with adding even more to the fragrance.

What Do Certain Notes Add To A Fragrance

Every note adds something to the fragrance. They all serve a purpose. All notes can be split up in 9 categories, being citrus, spicy/herbal, fruit, floral, gourmand, woody and earthy, atmospheric, warm, and musk/leathery.

fragrance notes cirtusy
Fresh Notes
  • Bergamot, a popular fragrance note due to its freshness and sweetness.
  • Lemon, the bright and fresh scent of lemon.
  • Grapefruit, a citrusy note that has a bit of bitterness to it.
  • Lime, a citrusy note that gives of the scent of lime.
  • Mandarin, a fresh, citrusy, almost floral scent.
  • Orange, The sweet scent of oranges.
  • Yuzu, citrusy note with some sharpness to it.

Because of the lightness of the citrusy notes, they are often used as the top notes of a fragrance.

fragrance notes spicy
Spicy Notes
  • Anise, a licorice like scent.
  • Basil, a green, herbal note.
  • Cardamom, warm and aromatic.
  • Cinnamon, a sweet, warm, and spicy note.
  • Clove, a fruity, rich, and spicy scent.
  • Ginger, a spicy, almost woody scent.
  • Nutmeg, a warm, woody, and spicy note.
  • Pepper, a sharp note that can refine a fragrance.
  • Rosemary, herbal note with similarities to pine.

Spicy notes are used to add depth and warmth to the fragrance. They can be quite overpowering so they are used sparsely unless the perfumer goes for a spicy fragrance.

fragrance notes fruity
Fruity Notes
  • Apple, a sweet and juicy note.
  • Blackberry, rich, almost musky note.
  • Pear, another sweet and juicy note.
  • Pineapple, fresh and tropical note.
  • Mango, sweet and deep note.
  • Strawberry, fresh and sweet, just like a real strawberry.
  • Watermelon, a fresh and aquatic note.

Fruity notes are most commonly used as either top or middle notes. They blend really easily with almost anything and can add a whole new vibe to the fragrance.

fragrance notes floral
Floral Notes
  • Geranium, fresh floral note with hints of green.
  • Iris, a nice powdery and floral note.
  • Lavender, fresh, aromatic, and masculine note.
  • Jasmine, a fruity, white floral note.
  • Violet, an earthy, sweet floral note.
  • Ylang Ylang, a fruity, tropical note, as well as being floral.
  • Rose, a fresh, floral note as you would expect from a rose.

Floral notes work amazingly in any fragrance. They blend very well and add a natural, floral vibe to the fragrance.

fragrance notes gourmand
Gourmand Notes
  • Absinthe, an aromatic, herbal note.
  • Almond, soft, nutty note.
  • Butter, a creamy and sweet note.
  • Coffee, a dark, coffee bean like note.
  • Cotton Candy, a sweet and sugary note.
  • Gin, an aromatic, juniper berry-like note.
  • Rum, a sweet and boozy note.
  • Whiskey, a smoky, boozy note.

These gourmand notes can make for some interesting angles in a fragrance. They are usually based on things we’d eat or drink, but this time, they’re put in a fragrance. They can make for a nice edge.

fragrance notes woody
Woody Notes
  • Vetiver, an earthy, woody, and smoky note.
  • Cedarwood, dry, somewhat sweet woody note.
  • Sandalwood, a rich, sweet, and woody note.
  • Moss, a bitter, green note.
  • Oud, a musky, sweet and nutty note.
  • Patchouli, another earth, sweet, and woody note.

These woody and earthy notes are most often used as a base note, to strengthen the fragrances lifetime. They fit in almost any fragrance.

fragrance notes atmospheric
Atmospheric Notes
  • Metallic, a clean and cold note.
  • Seaside, think of a salty, ocean-like scent.
  • Woodsmoke, like the name suggests, the scent of burning wood.
  • Tobacco, a rich and sweet scent with hints of vanilla and leather.

These are more unique notes and you won’t see these that often. But because of this, they also add a uniqueness to the fragrance and can really set a certain tone.

fragrance notes warmth
Warm Notes
  • Amber, there are multiple types of amber, like sweet amber, black amber, and white amber. All add a classic rich and warm note to a fragrance, but some add a bit more, like a smoke vibe or a more dried down vibe.
  • Elemi, a fresh, peppery, and warm note.
  • Aldehyde, a classic top note that is used in some of the most popular fragrances, like Chanel No.5.

These warm notes are some of the oldest notes to be used in fragrances, and to this day, are still frequently used due to their versatility.

fragrance notes musk
Musky & Leathery Notes
  • Ambergris, a sensual, musky note with hints of salt.
  • Suede, a soft and warm leather scent.
  • Leather, a deep and leathery note.
  • Musk, there are many different types of musk, all providing a nice, musky vibe to the fragrance. Some other musk types are black musk, cashmere musk, clean musk, skin musk, and white musk. These all add just that thing to make the fragrance even more unique.

Musks are most often found in the base notes. They basically make up the base of a fragrance and help to make the fragrance last longer. Because of the many different types of musk, there is always one that will go perfectly with a certain fragrance.

To see a full list of even more fragrance notes, including some lesser known ones, you can check out an article about it overĀ here.

Jasper Pieterse

Hi, my name is Jasper and I've been a long time fragrance fan. Ever since 2014, I started to get a huge interest in fragrances and I've had my nose on countless of different fragrances. I'm excited to share my experiences!

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