Fragrance Notes 101: What are Top, Middle, Base Notes?

Fragrances are made up of three distinct layers: top, middle, and base notes.

Top notes are the scent you first notice on application, middle notes make up the main portion of the perfume and will be apparent just before the top note fades, while base notes create the final, lingering scent of the fragrance and will be detected when the top note has evaporated completely. 

What are Fragrance Notes?

Fragrance notes are key when discovering your perfect scent. Just as music is composed of different notes which work together to create a masterpiece, the three classes of perfume notes combine in harmony to create a redolent final scent.

When first understanding fragrance notes, swap the word notes for ingredients and you’ll soon begin to grasp the importance each note holds in creating a well-rounded perfume.

Notes are also vital when understanding the longevity of scents. 

The particular longevity of a fragrance comes down to a number of variables. For instance, if a perfume has a base note you particularly like, that’s the scent that will last the longest. 

However, top notes tend to fade quickly so don’t be drawn in by their fragrances alone.

Consider fragrance notes as making up an olfactory pyramid with base notes forming the base of the pyramid. These notes create the foundation of the fragrance, so they need to be strong and long-lasting. 

The middle of the pyramid is comprised of the middle or heart notes and makes up the majority of the fragrance. Top notes—or opening notes—form the top of the pyramid and are the smallest section. 

All three sections of the pyramid or notes of the fragrance work together to create a robust, long-lasting structure.

The longevity of perfume has an effect on its price. Eau de parfum is the longest-lasting (around 8 hours) fragrance so it’s often the most expensive. Eau de toilette is a popular fragrance choice and lasts around 4-7 hours. 

Eau de cologne and eau fraiche have the shortest life span, lasting a maximum of 2 hours following application. 

What are Top Notes?

Top notes, sometimes called opening notes, are the fragrance you’ll notice when you initially spray a perfume. While they aren’t the most enduring, they’re the first impression you’ll get of a scent, so they’re extremely important.

Common top notes are from the citrus, fruit, or fresh herb families and consist of small molecules that tend to evaporate quickly—typically within 15 minutes. 

What are Middle/Heart Notes?

Middle notes are the scents you smell when the top notes of a fragrance first begin to evaporate. These notes are often called heart notes as they form the main body or heart of a scent.

Middle notes account for between 40-80% of the overall scent and make a more abiding impression compared to top notes. 

What are Base Notes?

Base notes comprise between 10-15% of the final fragrance and can be noticed once the top notes have completely evaporated. The heart notes and base notes blend together to create an enduring scent. 

Base notes add depth to fragrances and can be noticed most keenly when the top notes and base notes have dissipated. This is known as the dry down period. 

Which Scents are Top Notes?

Top notes or head notes are the scents that tease the senses and will initially attract prospective wearers to an eau de parfum or eau de toilette. They’re often fresh and light. 

Common top notes include scents from the citrus, light fruit, and fresh herb families.

Popular citrus head notes include orange zest, bergamot, and lemon. Citrus scents are expressed or cold-pressed in fragrances to preserve their freshness. 

Lavender, basil, and clary sage are often chosen from the fresh herbs family, while berries or anise are commonly selected light fruits. 

Green notes, such as the aforementioned basil, are often included in perfumes as they are fresh and invigorating to our senses. Other popular green notes include mint, violet leaves, spearmint, lemon leaves, and cut grass.

Which Scents are Middle/Heart Notes?

While all the notes are important to creating the overall smell of a perfume, the full body of the fragrance comes from the heart notes.

The middle note, or heart notes, tend to linger for between 2 and 4 hours after application. Their smells start to emerge once the top notes start evaporating. 

Heart notes and base notes also work together to create the overall fragrance. As they require greater perpetuity, these notes are more potent and are often created from perfume oil.

Oriental fragrances regularly feature as heart notes. Rose, lavender, ylang ylang, jasmine, orange blossom, and other floral tones can be combined with spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg to create a full-bodied fragrance.

Which Scents are Base Notes?

Base notes bring depth and must work alongside other notes to build upon the first impression created by the opening or head note. These notes consist of perfume oil as this is a powerful, intense way to incorporate a particular scent into a fragrance.

Common base notes include sandalwood, vanilla, musk, cedarwood, and amber. The overall purpose of base notes is to work with the middle notes to create a long-lasting impression of the fragrance.