Believe it or not there are a great many similarities between fragrance and music. Music and fragrance speak the same language: they’re composed of notes, harmonies and the so-called “juice” that is perfume is also known as a composition.If you’ve ever been unable to find the words to describe a certain perfume or fragrance, thinking about it in terms of music might help.
We think of a tone or a chord to transport us to the land of music. Similar terminology is used to describe the world of perfume, when we talk about accords and harmonies. A great fragrance is as complex, sensual and harmonizing as a grand musical composition and is carefully composed of notes, as many or as little as it takes to capture the perfumer’s vision.
Just like a chord in music, a perfume contains a top note, a middle or heart note, a and base note. The top note is the first note that we smell and it produces the immediate impression of the perfume. Top notes are composed of small light molecules with high volatility that evaporate quickly. Heart notes emerge just before the top notes have faded. Odors from this note class will emerge anywhere from two minutes to an hour after the perfume has been applied. Base notes, sometimes called the dry down, emerge while the heart notes are fading. Scents of this category are large, heavy molecules that are usually not detectable until at least thirty minutes after scent has been applied. They are often the fixatives used to hold and boost the strength of the lighter top and heart notes.
The varying evaporation rates of different molecules in a perfume is the reason a perfume will not smell the same when it is first applied as it does a couple of hours later.
A chord in music – with two or more keys, notes, or tones that when played together form a new sound – is quite a bit like an accord in fragrance which is a harmonious blend of fragrance materials carefully combined to create a completely new and different fragrant entity. As such, an accord can stand on its own and it’s difficult to detect the individual components.
In 1857, perfumer and chemist named G. W. Septimus Piesse published a popular olfactory guide called The Art of Perfumery which introduced the idea of thinking of fragrance in terms of musical notes. In it he created a comparative scale of 46 different aromas called the “Gamut of Odors”. Piesse used the methodology of scaling notes – jasmine and rose, for example, both ranked as C notes, whereas civet and ambergris were assigned the F note. Although this methodology wasn’t widely accepted, the terminology caught on which is why we speak of notes and accords in perfumery.
It’s worth noting that even the perfumer’s traditional workstation, in which raw materials are arranged by top, middle and base notes, is referred to as an organ.
Anyone who’s ever tried to compare such wildly different perfumes as Vivienne Westwood’s Boudoir or ALTAIA’s Don’t Cry for Me knows that perfume can range from being dramatic and seductive to nostalgic and romantic. Perfume has the ability to both influence and mirror how we feel and is like mood music to our nose.
A fragrance can be loud or quiet, energetic or peaceful. It can be as simple as an a cappella vocal or as majestic and multifaceted as a symphony. The simplest compositions show their hands early on while a more complex scent will unfold over time. It may begin with a light citrus note which leads into rose before turning into a musky amber.
Unlike painting or literature, both music and fragrance are artistic expressions that are invisible. Some like to compare top notes in perfume to lighter, higher frequency musical instruments like chimes and heart notes which are most often florals and called the soul of the perfume to the lead guitar or voice, while the heavier base notes equate to the drums or bass.
One of the most striking similarities between music and fragrance is their ability to create an atmosphere. Both have the ability to create a mood, a lingering impression that’s felt by all the senses: hearing, sight, smell, touch and taste.
Francis Kurkdjian, the nose behind too many blockbusters to name as well as his own celebrated line, puts it this way: “To me music and perfume are very much related because they use a common medium – the air. You hear music when the vibration of the sound in the air hits your ears, the same way that perfume needs the movement of air to come to your nose. Both mediums are invisible, compared to painting or literature. This is why they are so deep in our soul, in a way.”
Maybe we hear or smell notes the same way but the experience is unique to each individual. The story told by the music or perfume blends with our personal feelings, moods or understanding of it to make it what becomes our own personal interpretation.