By early morning, as people here woke up to a sunny late winter day, the music was already on the radio -- slow, sad and unmistakable.

"Do you hear what I hear?" one Moscovite asked another over the phone. "I hear it," came the answer. "There's no doubt about it."

After the deaths of three leaders in less than three years, the Soviet public has become attuned to the tell-tale signs. What may have come as a shock in 1982 when Leonid Brezhnev died is now familiar, and to most ordinary people, not very worrisome.

All day today, Moscow went about its business with almost unperturbable calm. Trucks darted through traffic, kicking up a mixture of mud and slush. People waited patiently outside the stores, hoping that what they came for would not run out by the time they got to the counter. Under the sunlight, the edges of soot-covered snowdrifts began to melt.

The only outward sign that anything was at all amiss came from the policemen who busily waved normal traffic aside as government limousines rushed from place to place, their occupants hidden behind window curtains.

Because of the music, people were not surprised by the announcement when it came on radio and television at 2 p.m. "Well, we guessed but we couldn't be sure who it was exactly," said one young woman.

"People were talking about it, but I wasn't near a radio," said one man, heading for the metro. "Was it announced on [western] radio or on ours?"

The smoothness of the transition, and the rapidity with which it took place, also caught some by surprise. It was only a little more than 24 hours after the officially stated time of Konstantin Chernenko's death that the Politburo, headed by the new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was lined up in the Hall of Columns, standing guard by the body.

Some people interviewed on the street in the early afternoon took a philosophical approach to the change. "Like everyone, I am sad for Chernenko," one pedestrian said. "Who's next? That's up there, I don't concern myself with that."

"Change?" said another, "I don't expect any change."

But that was before Gorbachev's election was announced. Some Russians had said beforehand that they were frankly "for" Gorbachev. "Because he is young," said one, "and he couldn't be in the Politburo that young if he wasn't smart."

While people may have become accustomed to the black-bordered pictures on television, the lying-in-state and other rituals of death at the highest levels, the choice of Gorbachev made some people stop to think. At 54, Mikhail Gorbachev could be in power -- "provided nothing happens" -- maybe 15 years or more.

For those grown accustomed to a quick turnaround in the top job, this was an interesting idea. "I'll be retired," said one man with some surprise, thinking about the next change in leadership.

After the announcement, flags were dropped to half-staff, traffic signs directing cars away from key central streets were swung into place and groups of people went about hanging red flags topped with black bunting from buildings.

At 5 p.m., when the Central Committee held its extraordinary session in the Kremlin to elect Gorbachev as the new general secretary, tourist groups sauntered past a courtyard parked thick with black cars.

A guide, moving a group of French tourists past the famous gilt-domed churches toward the world's biggest cannon, pointed across to a bright yellow government building and noted that, inside, the Soviet leadership was meeting to pick a new general secretary. The nodding tourists moved on.

A guard posted at a strategic position merely directed the curious in another direction. "They're working," he explained. "What kind of work? You should listen to the radio."