Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Perfume and Music 101: Notes and Pitch

Perfume and Music 101: Notes and Pitch - by Sali Oguri

To simplify understanding the connection between music and perfume, we need to begin with pitch. When a musical sound (note) is high like a note played on a violin, we call it high-pitched. Soprano singers sing in this range. In perfume, the same concept applies: mint and lemon are high-pitched smells (also called notes). When we hear a high note, we might imagine sparkling water or birds singing. When we smell high-pitched notes, we might have similar visions. Enter, bass and baritone: When a pitch is low enough to be played on a bass, it's low-pitched. When we hear or smell something low-pitched, we might imagine a dark forest or a warm log cabin with a fireplace. Patchouli, musk and amber are low-pitched. Between high and low, we find violas and cellos in the alto and tenor range - these would correlate to middle or heart notes in perfume, such as jasmine and rose (called the heart of perfumery with good reason). We may not all have synesthesia, but we make associations in our minds between things we come across in our everyday lives and the sensations we perceive.

In perfume, we often speak of top, middle (heart) and base notes. These correlate to the pitch of notes being used within a three-tier composition (and to simplify that, it means the high / top notes are smelled first and evaporate fastest, followed by the heart notes which give the scent character, and the base notes last the longest on skin and make a lasting impression). Often, we like a perfume from first sniff, but then we don't like the dry down (dry downs are base notes that stay on skin long after the top and heart notes have evaporated). To love a perfume throughout its evolution, we probably need to like all of the notes in a perfume through its various stages. All perfume notes eventually fade, just as musical notes don't linger on forever (with the exception of synthesized notes - but we won't delve into that area just yet), but you can see how the longevity of a note somehow correlates to our perception of it being high or low. It is the same with, say notes on a piano: the high notes don't sustain as long as the low notes.

When we say a perfume smells light or heavy, we often mean the perfumes smell high or low-pitched, but sometimes, we're talking about a whole other thing: volume, or strength. That is, how strong the concentration of scent is determines how we perceive the scent. A light perfume can mean one that's citrusy and light, or one that's of a diluted and sheer concentration (like eau de toilettes or colognes). Likewise, heavy might mean stronger and more concentrated (parfum, eau de parfum) as opposed to decribing a low-pitched scent. Still there is a connection to be made here as well: a low-pitched note indeed lasts longer, and therefore could be perceived as stronger than higher-pitched ones. This is why we can sometimes apply more lemon perfume and get away with it, in a way we can't with a boldly wooded one.

As with all walks of life, the more we understand, the more pleasure we can derive from a particular art or discipline.

(Image: www.riccardisviolinshop.com)

This article is featured at The Examiner as part of the ongoing Info 101 project: Perfume and Music 101: Notes and Pitch - by Sali Oguri