But, as a former player in a symphony orchestra noted for performing contemporary music, I like challenging those notions.
Pupils enjoy being introduced to experimental music and having a go at creating some themselves.
Try playing a piece like Magnus Lindberg's wild, primitive Kraft to them - that will get some forceful reactions - followed, perhaps, by the slow, hypnotic Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Part. This can start a lively discussion about how "classical" music written in the past 30 years differs hugely in style, just as contemporary popular music does.
You could start the debate by asking pupils what music they listen to themselves - the answers will probably be a mix of pop, rock, and even jazz or classical.
You can then discuss what turns sounds into music. Does it have to involve tunes, rhythms, harmony, repetition? Does it have to give pleasure? Why do people write it?
I sometimes show pupils a page from a contemporary orchestral piece that gives only fragments of music and leaves the rest up to the performer, with the conductor indicating only points of movement, such as where players should move around, change note or pattern, or stop. My pupils are not usually convinced that's a proper piece of music at all.
They can take prepared cards showing different shapes and colours to improvise sounds, melody or rhythms. I find pupils interpret a bright red and a pastel shape in different ways. They can use dice or shuffle the cards to decide on the order of performance, number of repetitions, dynamic and texture. They really enjoy this exercise and sometimes develop some challenging repertoire, ranging from eerie vocals, ghost-like sounds and firework effects, to multi-pitch humming, clicks or even beat-boxing.
They can use a peer conductor to indicate movement or change as discussed before. But, despite some convincing and well organised performances, they're often not sure that what they've made is music.
It's been far from boring, after all
Cathy Scott is a former professional violinist who now teaches at Aylesford School, a specialist music college in Warwick, and in its feeder primary schools
WHERE TO TUNE IN
A good place to find clips of contemporary music to play to your class (via RealPlayer) is the Boosey Hawkes publishing site www.boosey.com
Click on the composers section at the top of the page. Try one-minute blasts of Magnus Lindberg's Cantigas, Parada or Feria, or Mark-Anthony Turnage's Scherzoid. Perhaps more accessible is the complete performances of John Adam's Short Ride in a Fast Machine, or Tromba Lontana. Or try www.chesternovello.com for a really good clip from Lindberg's Aura.
Arvo Part's Spiegel im Spiegel is available on iTunes for about 80p or there's a video of about half of it on YouTube.
The BBC Radio 3 site is also a great place to research contemporary music and listen to performances. If you have an IT suite, get your class to work in pairs creating their own contemporary music using the games Drones and Lizard at www.bbc.co.ukorchestrasplay.
To make cards for pupils to improvise music, take sheets prepared using Microsoft Publisher (either one shape or repeated shapes) and cut to form cards.