I always get asked lots of questions about the terms Top, Mid and Base notes in perfumery as they cause a lot of confusion in modern perfumery. It was much simpler in the old days when perfumers were creating in a classic pyramid structure and not using the vast quantities of “linear” aroma chemicals they do today. In today’s post I’m going to demystify that a bit and if you want to learn more then come along to a live perfumery class or join me in my online perfumery course (this includes a Facebook group so you can ask me any questions whenever you want)
The most simple way of describing top, mid and base notes are like this:
The top notes of a fragrance are those that you notice first when you spray on a perfume and are traditionally materials with the most volatility which means they disappear the quickest. Materials that are classified as top notes are generally bergamot, lemon and other citrus oils as well as lavender, neroli and some of the spice notes such as coriander and cardamom.
Middle notes are those still smelled after several hours and are generally considered the heart of the fragrance that is apparent after the more volatile top notes have disappeared. They include most of the florals such as Rose, Geranium, Ylang and Jasmine.
Base notes are the materials smelled in the drydown of the fragrance – the drydown is what’s left on skin. They are the least volatile and will linger when everything else has disappeared. These notes tend to be the heavier resins, balsams and woods such as benzoin, vanilla and sandalwood which also help to fix the fragrance on the skin.
Usually these descriptions are used alongside a pyramid diagram as an illustration which can be a bit misleading as we don’t really smell perfume in this way. A pyramid gives the impression that each material lifts off in sequence from top through to base but that doesn’t really happen. The use of the fragrance pyramid is a useful marketing tool but is not particularly helpful for students of perfumery and can cause much confusion.
In reality you’ll smell mostly top, plus some mid and a bit of base at the start of the fragrance, then more mid and base then finally the base only which is called the drydown of the scent.
When categorising materials as either top, mid or base notes there has to be some degree of flexibility especially with the variation in natural materials so it should be used as a loose guide rather than rigid structure. The way fragrance materials behave in a perfume composition will also vary slightly to how they act alone. Materials interact with each other and some top notes will be slowed down and base notes may be lifted up more than they would on their own.
Commercial perfumery fragrance structure tends nowadays to be more linear, often with huge overdoses of very high impact aroma chemicals, and so the notes that you notice first are not necessarily the top notes. This makes the idea of a fragrance pyramid slightly redundant and we need to look at alternative ways of illustrating the composition.
In my Natural Perfumery Masterclass we focus on creating perfume in the classical pyramid structure in the same way that was taught by Jean Carles (who set up the first perfumery school in Grasse). In my Bespoke Perfumery Masterclass we add some aromachemicals to the naturals and explore the more linear method of perfumery as well as building on the Jean Carles Method. In the Online Course we cover both.
Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.