Trade and professional associations based in New York pay their top executives the highest salaries in the nation, according to a new study by the American Society of Association executives.

Washington, which leads New York in the number of association headquarters, is second in average salaries and Chicago is third, according to the study to be released Wednesday in New York.

The average salary paid to chief executives of the major trade groups based in New York was $60,700 in 1976 compared with $56,000 in Washington and $49,300 in Chicago. However, the range of salaries paid here was greater than either New York or Chicago, starting with a low of $20,000 and running as high as $150,000.

In recent years, the trade association business has become a major Washington industry, employing more than 40,000 persons.

The ASAE, effectively a trade association for the trade association business, sampled 359 groups with annual budgets ranging from $500,000 to more than $10 million in compiling data for its new report.

According to ASAE president James P. Low, the study also found:

Executive salaries up substantially from 1973, with chief executives of a trade group wiht an annual budget between $1 billion and $2.4 billion averaging $50,300 today compared with $41,165 in 1973.

Merit - not seniority - as the primary criterion for granting raises to association managers.