Music and perfume have one thing in common: they are made up of a combination of notes. But can you judge them just by reading the notes?
Mi Sol Fa Mi Si La Si Do Sol.
Did you recognize it? These are the first nine notes of Erik Satie’s masterpiece Gymnopédie N°1. If you know the song and you read the notes once again, probably the song will now bubble up in your mind more easily. If not, no worries, this is not a music quiz.
Music composers and perfumers have this in common: they combine different notes to create a composition. Without notes, no music, no perfume.
There are some big differences though.
All (Western) music is made up of only seven notes
The number of notes music composers have at their disposal is in fact quite limited. In Western music, only seven different notes exist: do re mi fa sol la si. That’s it. Of course, the composer can play with other elements: the octaves, the length of each note, the pace (from largo to presto), the volume (from pianissimo to fortissimo), the instruments, and so on. I’m not an expert in music, and this article does not have the ambition to explain all basics of music. The point I want to make is this: each composer uses the same, limited number of attributes. Still over the centuries, this has resulted in an uncountable number of totally different compositions. Baroque, Jazz, Rock, Punk, Dance: all are made out from the same basic raw materials, the notes, yet sound completely different.
What brings music to life? Reading the notes at the beginning of this article doesn’t do any justice to the masterpiece Erik Satie created when he put down the notes on paper. It’s only when musicians perform the piece and you actually hear the music, that you can fully appreciate it, and that you can be moved by it. Physically, this means that the different sound waves created by the instruments or voices reach your ears and blend into something that can affect you emotionally.
When attending a concert, you don’t really care about the notes. You care about the composition, the performance, the emotion with which the music is played. A masterpiece is created when the composer manages to combine the notes and other elements in such a way that the composition becomes so much more than the sum of all notes used.
The abondance of perfume notes
Now back to perfume. As said, what music and perfume have in common are notes. The difference is that a perfumer can choose between hundreds of different notes, and every day new fragrance notes are invented. Our smell receptors can distinguish about 10.000 different smells, making it our most sensitive of all senses. Compare it with our sense of taste, where we can only distinguish between five different tastes.
"Without our sense of smell, most of our food would just taste more or less the same."
Up till today, it’s still not 100% clear how are sense of smell actually works. We know that molecules have to reach our smell receptors in our nose, where they are then recognized and translated in our brain as a certain smell, but how that actually works is still a mystery. Is it the size and shape of the molecules? Or the way they vibrate? I recommend reading the book ‘The Secret of Scent’ by Luca Turin, if you’re interested to know more about the Scientific’s of our sense of scent.
And it gets even more complicated: in music, a Si is a Si, and every musician will know how to play it. The list of notes mentioned for a fragrance are different. They are descriptions (like rose, amber or vanilla) of the different smells you will detect (at best), but they are more then often not the basic ingredients of the composition. The smell of a rose for instance, is made up of numerous different chemical compounds like beta-damascenone, beta-damascone, beta-ionone, geraniol and rose oxide, just to name a few. There are lots of ways a perfumer can recreate the smell of a rose by combining different molecules.
From the top to the base
Just like a piece of music, a perfume has a beginning, a middle and an end. The lightest molecules (like most citrusy notes) will evaporate first and disappear quickly. They are called the top notes, the opening notes of a fragrance. It’s the first thing you smell when testing any fragrance. Then, after about 15 minutes, heavier notes start floating about, adding a new element to the smell sensation. These are called the heart notes, and they make up around 70% of the total scent. After about 30 minutes, they are accompanied by the heaviest molecules, the base notes that form the foundation of the fragrance. These notes help boost the lighter notes while adding more depth and resonance.
A music composer can use any note anywhere in a composition, but a perfumer can’t. A perfumer has to know the weight or behavior of each molecule: the lightest molecules can only be used as top notes, the heaviest molecules will by definition end up at the end of the composition, the base notes.
The art of perfumery
Imagine being a perfumer, in front of this enormous number of molecules, each with their distinct smell and behavior. The art of perfumery is being able to select and blend different molecules into a great composition. Some notes don’t even smell very good but are indispensable in perfumery because they lift other molecules or create a certain smell when combined with other molecules.
We often get the question if we create our own fragrances. Learning more about how fragrance works, we remain humble and full of admiration for the perfumers that master all these different elements. A workshop where you can test and combine some compounds is certainly interesting and enriching. It will help you understanding how a perfume is created and help you detect different smells in a perfume, but making an outstanding perfume is a different ballgame.
Thousands of perfumes have been created and new ones appear every day, combining molecules in different ways. And just like in music, it’s the entire composition that defines the quality and character of a perfume. You can only appreciate a perfume when you ‘listen’ to the entire composition, from the beginning (the top notes) to the end (the base notes).
Are notes in perfumery important?
Without olfactory molecules, no notes, without notes, no perfume. But can you judge a perfume just by reading the notes? Of course not, it’s like reading a music score without hearing the music. In fact, it’s not even that. It’s reading a description without knowing the real basic ingredients (the molecules) that have been used. You have to smell a perfume, and experience it (preferably on your skin, where your own body scent is added to the entire composition), just as music only comes to live when performed.
"I’ve never heard someone say: I don’t like this piece by Bach, because it contains Sols…"
Can you really say you don’t like perfumes with ‘patchouli’? For starters, you have natural patchouli oil, but also an abundance of fractal extractions and synthetics that resemble the smell of patchouli. There isn't really one smell of patchouli, there are lots of them. Furthermore, just like saying ‘I don’t like sols in a music composition’, it doesn’t really make sense. It just depends on how a perfumer manages to blend different notes together into a harmonious composition.
Next time you pass by to try different fragrances, take your time, listen to the entire composition, see what it does with you on an emotional level, and let go of your prejudices about certain notes. You might be surprised.