Family Resemblance

Often one asks whether a band belongs to a certain strain of music: is it jazz?

Ludwig Wittgenstein had some curious things to say on this matter of classification.

The question we’re asking, according to Wittgenstein, is whether we can apply terms like ‘jazz’ undisputedly. Is there a ‘jazz’ we can all agree on?

It’s been thought that through grasping characteristics that only all jazz has in common, then we can achieve this unequivocal definition: the essence of jazz. Wittgenstein saw it differently, insisting that it’s only a few of these traits that we focus on that leads to an understanding of a term. In jazz it could be a number of things: extended improvisation, tendency for brass and reed instruments, chords revolving around extensions, etc. For Wittgenstein, it is a close family resemblance, not completely filling out a strict check list, that we focus on when classifying something.

In a world where genres both mean the world and mean nothing, this type of classification finds a snug spot in the middle: there isn’t a definitive genre check list yet we still use certain traits to place music in a genre.


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