Well, I'll be gosh darned if there isn't scientific evidence that goes way, way beyond the decorative item on the piano and delves right into that brain lighting up!
Check out this article from the Dana Foundation:
It's long, it's meaty, it's fab. A few quotes:
"...focused training in any of the arts—such as music, dance or theater—strengthens the brain’s attention system, which in turn can improve cognition more generally."
"Practicing for long periods of time and in an absorbed way can cause changes in more than the specific brain network related to the skill. Sustained focus can also produce stronger and more efficient attention networks, and these key networks in turn affect cognitive skills more generally."
"A large body of scientific evidence shows that repeated activation of the brain’s attention networks increases their efficiency."
"I believe that few other school subjects can produce such strong and sustained attention that is at once rewarding and motivating. That is why arts training is particularly appealing as a potential means for improving cognition."
"The growing body of scientific work that suggests arts training can improve cognitive function—including our view, which identifies stronger attention networks as the mechanism—opens a new avenue of study for cognitive researchers. The new research findings also give parents and educators one more reason to encourage young people to find an art form they love and to pursue it with passion. Continuing research in this area can also help inform ongoing debates about the value of arts education, which has important policy implications given budgetary pressures to cut arts programs from school curricula.
From our perspective, it is increasingly clear that with enough focused attention, training in the arts likely yields cognitive benefits that go beyond “art for art’s sake.” Or, to put it another way, the art form that you truly love to learn may also lead to improvements in other brain functions."
Go read the whole thing, there are important concepts around closer and more distant cognitive relationships within the brain structure, and more.
If you are an art teacher, or a parent or a person seeking to stop the slaughter of the arts in our schools, you need material like this. We don't need bake sales, we need talking points.
Thank you, thank you to the cognitive research community for pursuing these types of questions. I look forward to what comes next, as foreshadowed in this study...